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Lane Dean Jr.

The celebrated passage in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King about how a career in accountancy is heroic is rightly lauded. My favourite chapter of The Pale King, however, involves one Lane Dean Jr. and his attempts to check a seemingly insurmountable number of tax returns. The text is extraordinarily emotionally accurate from someone who was not a qualified accountant with no direct experience of performing the checking procedures that drove Lane Dean Jr. to a mental breakdown.

DFW apparently took several finance and taxation courses before writing The Pale King, ostensibly for research purposes but I reckon he was also trying to see how much punishment he could take. I don’t think anyone could have more aptly described LD Jr.’s emotional destruction unless they had experienced an equivalent sense of taxation/accounting induced frustration and despair.

I can recall a number of times during my early accountancy career, particularly in the era before user friendly accounting software, where tax returns and financial statements had to be performed by hand and checked and rechecked by ascending ranks of staff, when I lamented (like LD Jr.) – “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a poor sinner”.

Much later in my career I was involved in grading professional accounting examinations and vividly recall, with a clenched stomach, seeing the clock, melt, as if subjected to a tremendous heat, into the wall. I knew I was in trouble.

Reading about LD Jr.’s anguish brought me back to that stuffy room, a sea of hunched backs in front of me, carving their way through their allotted examination papers while I worried about the vulnerability of my own exhausted mind and the melting clock.

I survived and I hope LD Jr. survived too.

Tally ho!

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