There's a moment towards the end of Adelle Waldman's new novel, Help Wanted, where a smart-but-insecure young woman named Nicole, who's a worker in a big-box store, approaches her manager to ask him what he thinks about her ambition to go to college. The manager, nicknamed "Big Will," is a good guy, but he's distracted. He's just been promoted and reassigned to another store. As Nicole sits down in Big Will's office, she notices a photo of a bunch of guys at what must have been Big Will's own college graduation. We're told that:

"They looked preppy and confident, like the rich kids from [high school]. ... Nicole remembered how she'd felt in high school. She thought of the time in social studies class she'd referred to people in Mexico as speaking Mexican. She could still hear the laughter. What if, when Big Will said she was smart, he didn't mean that kind of smart, college smart, like his friends? ... [Nicole] got up... , told Big Will it was nothing, and quickly left his office."

A really good writer, like Waldman, knows when to let a moment speak for itself. By the end of that brief scene, we readers sense Nicole's aspirations have deflated, maybe for good.

Waldman's 2013 debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., about a young literary hipster living (where else?) in Brooklyn, was lauded for its wit and shrewdness. It's been a long wait for Waldman's second novel, which turns out to be not what I was expecting. Help Wanted is a workplace ensemble piece set in a Costco-like store in a Catskill-region town. It's a place that was first hollowed out by malls and, now, by e-commerce and the disappearance of corporate office parks.

Waldman has said in interviews that she herself took a job in a big-box store for six months. Her motives seem to have been mixed: part anthropological, part practical — the income generated from her debut novel was beginning to dry up.

Help Wanted itself is a mixed bag. As you perhaps heard in the passage above, it's graced with the psychological acuity that distinguished its predecessor. But, because Help Wanted is a group portrait, it tends to visit, rather than settle in with, its working class characters.

The overall effect is both panoramic and jumpy, not unlike the novel's opening scene in which the "team members" of "Movement" — corporate-speak for the crew that gathers every morning at 4 a.m. to meet delivery trucks — frantically unload boxes of stuff: kitty litter, shrink-wrapped lampshades, sunscreen, tiki torches, toilet paper and "single-serve Styrofoam cups of soup."

The novel's plot is, in a sense, also a collective effort. No, nobody's talkin' union. Instead, given that Big Will, the store manager, is moving on up, the workers hatch a plan to rid themselves of their own reviled division manager, a woman named Meredith. By singing her praises to corporate, they hope to get her promoted, albeit undeservedly.

Waldman clearly relishes bringing mercurial Meredith to life. Here she is approaching Nicole on that early morning unloading line.

"'Hi, love,' [Meredith] said. 'How are you?' ...

Nicole gave Meredith the smallest, coldest smile she could get away with, then turned to a large box—a mini-fridge for a college dorm room — rolling toward her. ... It had only traveled a few inches when Meredith bent forward and gave it a big theatrical shove. 'Boom chicka boom!' she called gaily.

She turned to Nicole. 'See?' she said. ... 'A little energy is all it takes.'

She snapped her fingers twice, right up in Nicole's face.

Unable to slap Meredith's hand away, Nicole instead thought about quitting."

If The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was a droll depiction of the insider culture of literary Brooklyn, Help Wanted is an informed depiction of outsiders: hourly wage workers, mostly without benefits, who see themselves shut out of the American Dream. If there's not as much witty banter in this novel, well, how could there be?