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Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work Paperback – April 19, 2011
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“A rich compendium that seeks to define, defend and explain the importance of work using complex characters that range from a veteran waiter aboard a train to a lauded but aging poet seeking his muse in Italy.” (Associated Press)
“This book is worth a read. I learned a few things, smiled a time or two and made myself a promise to leave very, very good tips for the next delivery man who comes to our house.” (New York Times)
From the Back Cover
This vital and compelling collection of stories about work, compiled by novelist and short-story writer Richard Ford, explores tales of how we Americans are employed; how we find work and leave it; how it excites, ennobles, occasionally debilitates, but often defines us.
Contributing writers for Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar range from contemporary Pulitzer Prize winners Edward P. Jones and Jhumpa Lahiri to iconic short-story masters Tobias Wolff, Annie Proulx, and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as emerging writers such as Lewis Robinson. Encompassing a wide range of contemporary literary styles, ages, ethnic backgrounds, and geographical locations, Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar is a masterful, exhilarating, and timely fictional exploration of work and its relationship to the human spirit.
All author proceeds from Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work will go directly to fund the free youth writing, tutoring, and publishing programs offered by 826michigan.
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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, whose 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 1960s, 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 here 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.
For many of the stories, work wasn't as centrally related as I'd been expecting. Pieces with the most direct connection were "Job History," by Annie Proulx, which recounted the many failed jobs a couple had worked at through their lives while struggling to raise a family. Despite much disappointment, the striving never stopped. And "Great Experiment," by Jeffrey Eugenides, in which a disgruntled editor pondered his lack of income and the state of the nation while compiling quotations from De Tocqueville on America's early promise. Formally interesting was "Me and Miss Mandible," from the 1960s by Donald Barthelme, in which an insurance adjuster found himself suddenly reassigned to elementary school, in a transformation echoing something by Kafka.
Too many of the other stories in the collection seemed cluttered and formless, failing to hold my attention all the way through. On the other hand, some of the longest works in the book were among the most memorable: "Pharmacy" by Elizabeth Strout, set in a small-town community, where the passage of time and changes in people were beautifully depicted. "The Store," by Edward P. Jones, in which a city youth slowly found a sense of community, guided by a mentor. And "The Flaw in the Design," on the pressures in a well-to-do family, even though it seemed to be more about cultural dislocation than anyone's job.
Some modern work-related authors/stories not in this collection: John O'Hara, "A Respectable Place" and "Walter T. Carriman." Charles Beaumont, "The Vanishing American." John Cheever, "The Swimmer." Hubert Selby, Jr., "Song of the Silent Snow." Breece D'J Pancake, "First Day of Winter." Mary Gaitskill, "The Dentist" and "Secretary." Wanda Coleman, "The Buyer." Barbara Kingsolver, "Why I Am a Danger to the Public." Raymond Carver, "The Bridle." George Saunders, "The 400-Pound CEO" and "Bounty." From the UK, Penelope Fitzgerald, "The Axe." Another anthology touching on work is The Vintage/Chatto Book of Office Life.
There's always "Bartleby the Scrivener," but for this reader so far the most moving piece to do with work has been not a short story but a play, Death of a Salesman.
Alas, too many stories were uninteresting. They seemed distant, where the narrator or storyteller is uninvolved. Many appear to be about something other than the job. There was one, however, that seemed to be not much more than a lengthy list of the various jobs a character held.
There were perhaps a handful that bored me in the first couple pages, prompting me to skip to the next. There were a few others were I simply didn't get the point. One of the latter was "Death of a Traveling Salesman" by Eudora Welty.
All is not bleak. I quite enjoyed "The Store" by Edward P. Jones, mostly because it is about a young man working at a store.