A Series of Sub-Optimal Events

Habib William Kherbek, Best Practices (Moist, 2021)

Go for the brass ring. Seize every opportunity. Go big or go home. Know when to whisper; know when to shout. When life gives you dilemmas, make dilemmonade.

To the mountain of sales wisdom, our protagonist Graham Price adds his own bold axiom:

                When things aren’t just right, adjust, right? Then you’ll be alright!

As far as brand-building slogans go, it’s not quite Carnegie’s “Win Friends and Influence People”, or Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich”, or even Talib’s “Skin in the Game”…

But then Best Practices isn’t quite that kind of book.

Presented as a managerial manual, written by a team leader in the charities sector, Best Practices is one of the funniest and most astute books I’ve read in recent years.

It opens as a straightforward parody. Kherbek has mastered the cingemaking prose style of the amateur managerial writer. Clichés and jargon litter run-on sentences. Overfamiliar addresses to the reader are accompanied by overenthusiastic exclamation marks.

As I entered the tube (or “subway” if you’re reading this in America!)…

It’s at turns funny and, occasionally, disconcerting. The brilliance of the performance is such that I find myself googling Kerbeck to reassure myself that he is a fiction writer and not an actual managerial advice columnist.

After some introductory goal-setting and objective-orientation, our protagonist presents us with the first of his many anecdotes, none of which give conveys the message he hopes they do.

It concerns his time as team leader at a fundraising drive for his old university. A girl on his team goes off-script. She might get the donation but, as Graham Price tells us, this is hardly the point.

The Trade Down Script is sacrosanct. You do not leave the script.

Considering this offence a “teachable moment”, Graham asks the rest of the team to finish their calls and listen while he berates the girl. As she runs away crying, he knows he has made his point clear.

The script is stuck to and the fundraiser comes in fifty-thousand pounds above its original target.

This is one of the many brilliances of Best Practices; Graham always comes out on top.

Whether it’s his early fundraisers, or his work promoting scoliosis awareness with an all-scoliosis casting of Richard III, or his televised sponsored bike-ride, the Ride for Uncle John, done in the name of a fictional dead uncle; Graham’s relentless enthusiasm always wins out.

Graham never questions his training or his intentions. He always sticks to the script.

Even when he decides to travel to a wartorn African country and finds himself as a go-between working between rival factions.

In a way, Graham’s purity of heart and vision are what redeem him.

In the narrative, he is contrasted with John – an activist whose refusal to play the game results in constant frustration and failure – and Richard, a fellow NGO leader whose cynicism leads him down dark and dangerous alleyways.

As readers, we also can’t help but like Graham. He’s a simple Stockport lad with an MBA and a good heart. He wants to help people, and won’t let politics, or a consistent set of values, or a sense of self-awareness get in his way; he just presses the flesh, makes the connections and gets things done.

Sure, he ends up in the middle of an apocalyptic situation that’s largely of his own making, but thanks to his upbeat stick-to-it-iveness, he comes out of it not necessarily wiser, but at least with enough anecdotes to turn out a management manual.

Kherbek’s novel is an astute character piece, an uproarious farce, and a stark satirical comment on the world of self-serving NGOs and third-world aid programmes.

“They don’t need us,” the cynical Richard tells Graham, “it’s us that need them.”

And anyone who thinks that charities and NGOs are any less ruthless than good old fashioned megacorporations is in need of Best Practices; a corrective satire if ever there was one.

Joe Darlington

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