Thirty-two accounts, fewer than you’d expect told on the job, but the duties of making a living, or failing to do so, haunt them all. Alphabetized by surname, this (lack of) arrangement appears a bit of a cop out, for the reader must labor to make more sense of how these disparate tales fit together. Nearly all take place in America, all were previously published by Americans, and all but one feature Americans.
What does this focus, then, reveal about occupations and careers? Richard Ford’s introduction tells us more about a put-down at a dinner party he attended than the collection he edits. The reader must therefore figure out why each story was included, and overall, if this represents the best ever compiled about how writers imagine how the bulk of our lives are spent, at least five days a week for most of us, then recent fiction may stint on what even its most accomplished practitioners expend on its evocation.
I sought patterns of connection. Russell Banks’ “The Gully” reveals how vigilantes in a Third World city manage to succeed as entrepreneurs, while T. C. Boyle’s “Zapatos” offers a shaggy-dog story which explores similar terrain with a clever nod to the unnamed country of Chile’s delineation. Junot Díaz navigates his familiar arena of tension between Latino immigrants, here a Dominican-born pool table deliveryman in “Edison, New Jersey” whose lack of principles throw off the reader’s expected sympathy. As with “Drummond and Son” by Charles D’Ambrosio, set in a Seattle typewriter repairman’s store where the owner must deal with his unstable, damaged son, these milieux, with blue-collar settings, enlivens their skewed narratives.
Similarly, the hustling done by Max Apple’s character seeking financing for her frozen yogurt enterprise in “Business Talk”, the desperate dodge planned by the exploited protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’ ”Great Experiment”, the collapse of a parent’s marriage as overheard by two paperboys, the brothers of Andre Dubus’ “Delivery”, the sexual harassment charge hovering off-stage around the couple in Richard Bausch’s “Unjust”, the escape plotted by the wife in Deborah Eisenberg’s “A Flaw in the Design” from another damaged household—all attest to the pressures endured by ordinary folks. Consider Eisenberg’s unraveling family at the dinner table. Eisenberg’s narrator reflects: “For a moment, we all just sit there again, as if someone had turned off the current, disengaging us.”
Such weariness infuses many of the better stories. Eugenides’ ambitious entry contrasts the success of a millionaire pornography magnate turned, at 82, free-speech publisher with his editor, who’s denied his health-care coverage despite five years of loyal service. This far-younger Chicago writer never wanted to live like his parents, but neither he nor his wife can afford, well, a wife. Their marriage “as countercultural, an artistic alliance committed to the support of vinyl records and Midwestern literary quarterlies” flounders. A fixer-upper can’t be fixed. Desperately, the protagonist seeks rescue during Bush-era deregulation and Enron.
Those lower down on the scale struggle, as always. Edward P. Jones’ “The Store” and James Alan McPherson’s “A Solo Song for Doc” follow two black men who grow up by serving customers, one taking care of a corner grocery in D.C. during the start of the ‘60s, the other ending around 1965 after a career spent in railroad dining cars. As with Thomas McGuane’s “Cowboy”, or the long litany of woes tallied in Annie Proulx’s “Job History” for a luckless Wyoming worker who refuses to give up, the dignity as well as the duplicity involved in getting paid keeps strong stories from succumbing to sentimentality.
Stuart Dybek often touches on spiritual longing in his Chicago fiction; “Sauerkraut Soup” tries to slip a weightier message into a saga of a student turned ice-cream factory worker. “That terrible lack of sympathy pervading all locker rooms hung in the air”. Marzek learns that everyone on the shift gives in to an inarticulate, then submerged, resignation about “the way time was surrendered”. This leads to his existentialist epiphany, in the pink “deceptive light of Indian summer”. Stories such as Dybek’s interest us when they use the backdrop of a job to display the character’s inner turmoil; the best here do.
J.F. Powers, often overlooked in anthologies but as with Dybek a writer’s writer, in “The Valiant Woman” nimbly addresses Father Frank Firman’s resignation to his rectory’s housekeeper, his life-long if never courted companion, Mrs. Stoner. He settles down for their, or her, evening routine, a game of cards called “honeymoon”: “Father Firman scratched in his coat pocket for a pill, found one, swallowed it. He let his head sink back against the chair and closed his eyes. He could hear her moving about the room, making the preparations: and how he knew them—the fumbling in the drawer for a pencil with a point, the rip of a page from his daily calendar, and finally the leg of the card table sliding up against his leg”.
These careful details mark many heartland-based stories. I’m not sure why suburban malls, franchises, and corporate-branded workplaces serving as employers for so many today are absent. Exurban sprawl, high-tech, the downsized blue-collar or stagnating white-collar predicaments earn quick attention, but more obliquely than directly. Perhaps this reflects treatment of similar issues in most movies and television shows, which also tend to use the workplace as background rather than center stage. (Unfortunately, in a volume dedicated to one of everyday America’s greatest chroniclers, Raymond Carver, Ford notes that Carver’s estate denied permission for “Elephant” to be included.)
Despite the predominance of later 20th-century stories, many feel as if set in a slightly earlier era. Only one story appeared before mid-century (if well before Arthur Miller’s play), Eudora Welty’s “The Death of the Traveling Salesman”; this feels as taken from a folktale, its eerie Southern Gothic mood very distinctive from the Midwestern or small-town settings preferred by most contributors. Very few stories take place, as does Apple’s, in the suburbs or even next to the chain stores. Ford prefers a skewed, small-town provenance for many stories that feels at odds with how many Americans survive today.
Elizabeth Strout’s “Pharmacy” set in a Maine village, however, shows one local reacting to the chain drugstore replacing the pharmacy, the trees cut down for its parking lot. “You get used to things, he thinks, without getting used to things”. Many writers relate their stories in this worldly wise style, as if out of a writer’s workshop, and as with Ford’s own “Under the Radar” or Donald Barthelme or Ann Beattie or George Chambers’ inclusions, these often drain the energy from stories which adapt distance rather than confrontation within a recognizable, daily workplace. Beattie’s “The Working Girl” deconstructs romance, but displays little of the working life. While Alice Munro’s control of place and time enriches “Some Women”, the payoff for such subtlety, for me, appeared too genteel.
Some prominent authors, however, manage to combine observations of everyday life with a snappier professionalism. Joyce Carol Oates’ “High Lonesome”, Lewis Robinson’s “Officer Friendly” and Tobias Woolf’s “The Deposition” dramatize unpredictably how the law may create disorder. James Salter’s “Foreign Shores” about a Dutch au pair and ZZ Packer’s “Geese” about a black woman’s job searches in Japan present challenges that update those of Díaz, Jones, McGuane and McPherson as people scheme. “Minotaur” by Jim Shepard succeeds as it glimpses obliquely at the “black world” of secret projects at Lockheed. “A Glutton for Punishment” by Richard Yates follows a fired worker home as he tells his wife.
Inevitably, some writers write about writers writing. Barthelme fails and his postmodernism (as with Chambers) grates as it dates poorly. Eugenides, by veering off into free enterprise, keeps his story fresh. John Cheever’s “The World of Apples” examines gracefully a Robert Frost-type poet pestered in his Italian idyll by admirers of (only) his first book; in old age he determines to renew his passion. In “The Writer’s Trade”, Nicholas Delbanco introduces steadily a debut novelist as he reacts to sudden acclaim.
Writing also infuses the reason for this publication. This anthology benefits 826michigan, one of the 826 chapters which nationally support youth tutoring, writing workshops, and field trips. As with Ian Frazier’s Humor Me anthology for the national efforts by this same non-profit, which I reviewed for PopMatters last year, the uneven contents of Ford’s anthology dissuade me from unqualified support of such means, but the end to which such anthologies aim, for 826, is one I certainly support. Since my review of Frazier’s book, I have participated in 826 work as a volunteer at my city’s own branch, as a footnote for my critique or a recommendation of its programs.
The most successful story, for me, integrated the job of a tour guide in India, who moonlights from his regular employment as “The Interpreter of Maladies” by translating at a doctor’s office. Jhumpa Lahiri deftly depicts him at work, while fantasizing, until he’s forced to wake up to the truth. Such a story, realistic yet expansive enough to allow the rest of the world beyond the job to enter, demonstrates the most accurate, if for some competitors in this collection still elusive, fictionalization of factual necessity.