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Excerpt: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar

Chau Tu Apr 22, 2011

The following excerpt is from “Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work.” Listen to an interview with editor Richard Ford and learn more about the book.


When I was growing up in Mississippi, in the 1940s and ’50s, my father worked as a traveling salesman. And you might say we — my family — lived in a world dominated by work. My father had gained his job during the heart of the Depression, in 1935, and kept it until his dying day, in 1960. It was a source of considerable pride to him — not to mention relief, and the sponsor of most of our family’s material well-being — that he had one job through the Depression, the World War, and all of the 1950s. His job meant viability to him — and to us as well. It meant self-esteem. It meant he was a producer. It suggested important self-knowledge and self-mastery. It implied some hold on good character. It solidified him as a family man. Work — having a job, being employed, making a living — became virtually synonymous with its gifts, and as such became a virtue in itself. Yes, the days were long, loneliness palpable and oppressive; the pay wasn’t very good. There were no benefits. The work was sedentary and repetitive and humdrum. But those things didn’t matter when stacked up against the alternatives: no job, low self-esteem, fragile viability, no pay, no nothing. His job, in other words, defined part of his moral world view.

In this environment it always mattered (and was inevitably pronounced) what a man did for a living. Ed Manny worked for Nabisco. Lew Herring sold furniture. Ish Smith was a manufacturer’s rep. Rex Best traveled for General Foods. Barney Rozier worked in the oil patch and wore a silver hard hat. What you “did” might not have meant who you were. But what you did sure made who you were more plausible.

And not having work made the whole contraption of human character fairly unsteady on its pins — more unsteady than usual.

This institution of my early life — the transcendent significance of work — eventually and not surprisingly became a factor in my later life and vocation: writing novels and stories. Of course, there was the standard dilemma (Thoreau suffered it, too) of writing not being considered as actual work by the world around me — a view I secretly shared but didn’t admit I shared, and in fact worked hard at disproving.

In the late seventies, when I was thirty-five, and after writing two novels, each of which brought some credit to me, I was offered a fairly low-level, no-future teaching job by Princeton — a fact that wasn’t so impressive to me but caused my mother virtually to swoon. “Oh, Richard,” she rhapsodized, “I’m so glad you’re finally getting started.” Not that I hadn’t had jobs before then. I’d had plenty — being a locomotive switchman on the Missouri Pacific Railroad at age seventeen, being a house detective in a bilgy old drummer’s hotel in Little Rock. And that wasn’t all. But as a “working writer,” I thought — very much like the young novelist in Nicholas Delbanco’s story “The Writers’ Trade” — that I’d already made a start, had even made some substantial strides. Except to my mother, a young wife of the Depression, work (“getting started”) meant something else: it meant all those things I’ve been talking about, and that came with a steady paycheck and a future you could see playing out in front of you. I lacked the paycheck and the future, and possibly I was shaky on the other parts, as well. My mother loved me and told me so often — but I was never quite plausible to her after that, never totally solid, love aside.

The other significance that work’s validating force imposed on me was that in the process of writing made-up characters in novels — my type of work — I discovered that unless I could say (usually right in the story) what an important character did for a living, then that character didn’t achieve the kind of persuasiveness I needed, the kind to make “him” or “her” “real” to me so that the character could carry moral weight, create consequence, transport the reader, be “round,” as Forster said good characters should be.

Even for the fictional characters I was merely reading — those flimsy fascicles of somebody else’s words and imputations that try to register as people on my mind’s screen — work packed a big wallop, carried a payload of artful plausibility, was (still is) a need-to-know ingredient in making characters take hold. Surely it’s one of the great pleasures and impacters in Elizabeth Strout’s majestic story “Pharmacy” that the principal character is a small-town druggist, patiently seeking a prescription for complex life — his own, and others’ as well. Likewise in Charles D’Ambrosio’s subtle and nuanced “Drummond & Son” — wherein a loving typewriter repairer unsuccessfully seeks to shelter his grown-up, schizophrenic son in a halfway house — the story’s almost prayerful, physical environment plays out in the language of . . . well, typewriters: Platens. The resistance of querulous keys. A type bar falling back “with an exhausted plop before it reached the paper.”

Yes, I’m completely confident there are plenty of stories and novels wherein we never learn how the main character earns his or her keep. But at the moment I can’t think of one. The elegant, harrowing James Salter story in this volume is much about people who seem not to have jobs, or who lose them; but that’s merely the other, possibly direr side of the same moral coin.

To engage the issue of work, then, as all these luminous stories variously do — some concentratedly, some symbolically, some peripherally, some only as a small, bright detail by which to flesh a character up out of dim abstraction — is to put into imaginative play all of those provident concerns my father (and his son) drew strength from or suffered in his lived life. These are stories that in one way or other seek to imagine how human viability is found and held onto; how self-mastery comes about or doesn’t; how moral good is identified and corroborated, loneliness combated or succumbed to; or — in the case of the classic Donald Barthelme story “Me and Miss Mandible” (in which an insurance investigator takes the client’s part and is sent back to the sixth grade) — what it means to be a producer.

Fiction, indeed, has plenty to tell us about work and its stamp on us. For one thing, fiction performs for the institution of work (labor, job, paycheck, vocation, career) exactly what it performs for all of its considered subjects: it elevates what we might’ve thought we already knew, or what we’d overlooked or consigned to the oubliette of conventional wisdom, and focuses a new gaze upon the matter. In some instances it re-dignifies its subject, or in others reappraises it, or attaches different consequences to it from the ones we’d previously entertained or presumed or just ignored. In other words, literature that engages the subject of work thereby reproclaims work to be a proper subject of our notice — ultimately a moral transaction.

F. R. Leavis, in an essay about D. H. Lawrence, helpfully points out that one of literature’s chief jobs is to provide us readers with a “new awareness” about our lives. The stories in this collection manage in every instance to make us newly aware of many important things — one being our work: our starkly ambiguous feelings about it (which reveal us); work’s centrality (. . . or absurdity) as a component in our private and national characters; about work’s basic intransigence as a preoccupation we struggle with and seek to understand along the way to understanding ourselves. And more. God knows, there are plenty of sociological and philosophical treatises on work (“Miss Arendt, it’s time for your close-up”). But Umberto Eco is surely correct when he said in his recent Paris Review interview that what we can’t theorize about, we must narrate. Work — always present somehow, always close to our thinking lives — is itself near enough to us that theorizing can miss the grainy, interesting, unexpected bits and take us only part way round to the truth. We make up a story, then, to get in as much as can be told, and in so doing manage to create the whole truth we seek.

A couple of years ago, at one of those early-evening cocktail-parties-on-the-white-banistered-porch-with-a-bay-view that take place up and down the American seaboard (this one was in Maine), I found myself talking to “our host,” an extremely affable, quick-witted seafaring type of about my age — expensive, sockless deck shoes, white duck trousers, blue linen blazer sans coat of arms, a nice haircut and tan. After a certain period spent coddling iceless drinks and chatting about who-knows-who, the Democrats’ then burgeoning hopes, my personal aversion to sailing and his belief that this was easily curable, I began to notice this man hadn’t once mentioned work — unusual and notable in Americans; probably unusual and notable everywhere. It was all the more conspicuous to me because this fellow wasn’t retirement age and seemed to be completely loaded with dough (I now realize how naïve I truly am). I was raised, as I’ve already said, with a heightened awareness of what everyone did, and its importance in the grand scheme of things; but also — since a man’s occupation was central to who he was and what he was morally worth — with a near obsessive drive never to inquire about such sensitive things, even in the most casual and harmless of ways. Far too impolite. Too aggressive. Too coarse and obvious. It was as if in doing such a garish thing one would basically be saying, “Well, now, Locklear, what makes you so goddamn sure you’re solid on the earth?”

However, after a third trip to the drinks table, during which time it was revealed that I wrote books and that my host happened to have at least one of them open on his bedside table at that moment, I felt freed up enough to say — in a mock-accusatorial, Humphrey-Bogartish, noir kind of way — “So. Okay. Spill the beans, P. J. What do you do for a living?”

Whereupon P. J. grinned at me, widened his blameless blue eyes, cast a glance to the darkening heavens, put a heavy, confessional hand on my shoulder, drew me to him so that our collar points conspiratorially touched, and in a mock whisper said . . . “Richard, old son, I don’t work. I don’t work a lick. And what’s more, I intend for things to stay that way. There’s no future in work. Hah! You’re a writer. You know that as well as I do.”

My embedded point in telling this story (which you might think I just made up, but I promise you I didn’t) is that my sense of this perfectly decent man was forever cemented in a way that probably wouldn’t have been true if he’d confessed to me he’d gone outside his marriage with a flight attendant, or that his daughter had Asperger’s, or that his father’d just died as the oldest Medal of Honor Winner in Rhode Island, or that he’d just the day before decided to dedicate his life to the Lord Jesus Christ and was becoming a Dominican and moving to Flagstaff. How I might narrate and imagine how I came to feel what I came to feel about P. J. would certainly require a svelte little short story to work out — and I don’t have time for that now. But it certainly would involve mingling my nascent respect and probably my envy of my host, along with my own attitudes toward work (bred-in by my parents), plus my previously mentioned naïveté about sizing up others and how poorly that augurs for me ever to be a good writer. Fiction can bring together a mighty lot of life’s frail filaments and produce surprising results.

To my mind, it was the significant subject of work which hit me amidships: its effect on me as a pure attention grabber, as a moral direction pointer, and as an ignition mechanism for illuminating and identifying something important and up-to-now unknown about humankind.

To get swiftly, then, to the end so the stories can have their way: It’s at the heart of this book’s conception that stories of work — offered at this particular moment in our nation’s history (a time of shortage), and on behalf of 826michigan, an organization deep in the thick of life here in our American state most closely identified with the working woman and man — that this was a proper alignment of needs and supplies, demands and enthusiasm. We imagined the book from the start as a suite of stories expressly collected for Michiganians. Yet we soon realized that it was a book for anyone who feels the urge to apply the consolations of literature to the complex, often perplexing matters of earning a paycheck, showing up on time, getting the job done, taking the job home, getting hired, laid off, promoted, demoted, reclassified, sent home, or of just plain being fed up and ready to take a hike. Work, as you will see, is imagined broadly in these stories — as labor, as chores, as business, as duty, as habit, as memory, as art, and as a priestly vocation. The idea here is that, within the wide array of everything work may be said to encompass, one finds a vital connective tissue to be the thriving human spirit. V. S. Pritchett once wrote, “I have wished I had spent my life in industry. The sight and sound of traditional expertness is irresistible to me.” The great story-writer, of course, may have been slyly conceding my mother’s argument from years ago — and that in her mind, I always lost: that writing is not really work; it’s at best a figment we writers hold out as true, much as we do our own stories. But what was irresistible to VSP is irresistible to me: that work, however we do it or define it, is near the heart of human things; and as with all we know of the heart, its truth is most tellingly found in the acts of our imagination.

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