“Is it true what you told me jest now, that you never done a hand’s turn o’ work in all your born life? Must feel kinder awful, don’t it?”

I don’t like to say that “the work project is under way,” or that it’s gotten under way, since my last week’s post on it, because really the work project was always under way—or at least, it has been for several years. It’s just one of those things that I notice when I read, which is probably, of course, why I thought about doing a “project” on it to begin with. But I have dug in. To some work, you could say.

Anthony suggested the anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, a volume that had been on my shelf for several months, making me feel rather guilty for not working on this project in earnest sooner. I hoped it would give me some ideas for further reading at the very least*, so I started in on it shortly after writing my description of the project. I have read the first six stories: “Business Talk,” by Max Apple; “The Gully,” by Russell Banks; “Me and Miss Mandible,” by Donald Barthelme; “Unjust,” by Richard Bausch; “The Working Girl,” by Ann Beattie; and “Zapatos,” by T.C. Boyle.

Of these six, two show absolutely no work—in “Unjust,” a sheriff is accused of sexual harassment and the story follows his difficulties at home while he’s on administrative leave, and “Working Girl” gallops away from work as quickly as it can and into what one might call “the rest of life.”

In a third story, “Me and Miss Mandible,” Miss Mandible is at work during most of the present action of the story, but she’s teaching the narrator, which is at the very least an unusual depiction of work.** There is also some reference to the work the narrator used to do, though only in very general terms.

“The Gully” is a little bit more work-oriented, though the focus is more on building a business. The work that actually begins this process takes up only a small physical amount of the story. In other words, I’d say this is more a story of business than of work.

That leaves two out of six stories that I would say are pretty work-focused, though in neither case entirely so. “Zapatos” is both my favorite so far in general and also the best example for these purposes. I’d like to write about it at greater length tomorrow. “Business Talk,” meanwhile, is about a housewife who wants to start her own business, and settles, with a friend, on a frozen yogurt franchise. Like “The Gully,” the story leans a bit in the “business or work?” direction, but Apple does much more description of the basic activities of working:

We decide to gather as much information as possible and talk to a lawyer before we sign a lease. Jeannie wants us to be a corporation with stationery and a logo. I spend the early morning calling long distance until I find out that there is a distributor right here in Houston. I leave my name.

He even describes some of these activities for people other than the protagonist:

David wrings his hands. He is always worried. Two gay cooks and a waiter run his restaurant. They are constantly arguing. They buy their ingredients fresh every day. David drives across town to the Farmers’ Market for the vegetables. He has already had three minor accidents on the freeway. When he returns they stop arguing and cook whatever he buys. The staff all hate David for his inefficiency.

On the other hand, this is simply a part of Apple’s style (at least in this story): we get all sorts of descriptions of mundane details, not just of work. We find out when the narrator shaves her legs, the fact that “[w]e all have spinach salad and eggplant Parmesan” at a business lunch.

So what does it mean when an anthology purporting to collect “stories of work” is, thus far, at best only halfway telling stories of work? That is not to say there is anything wrong with any of these stories, or even that the Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar title is inappropriate. It does seem to highlight, however, the fact that this isn’t, let’s say, an attractive subject for many writers—the actual work stuff, that is. Compare even the passages above from “Business Talk” with this, from John Williams’s novel Stoner, much-loved around the blogosphere and finally being read by yours truly:

So for nine months’ room and board he fed and watered the livestock, slopped pigs, gathered eggs, milked cows, and chopped firewood. He also plowed and harrowed fields, dug stumps (in the winter breaking through three inches of frozen soil), and churned butter for Mrs. Foote, who watched him with her head bobbing in grim approval as the wooden churner splashed up and down through the milk.

And that’s from pages 8 and 9—and isn’t the first description of work! And compare again with Captains Courageous, the book that finally got me do the work of writing that post last week:

Penn and Manuel stood knee deep among cod in the pen, flourishing drawn knives. Long Jack, a basket at his feet and mittens on his hands, faced Uncle Salters at the table, and Harvey stared at the pitchfork and the tub.

“Hi!” shouted Manuel, stooping to the fish, and bringing one up with a finger under its gill and a finger in its eyes. He laid it on the edge of the pen; the knife-blade glimmered with a sound of tearing, and the fish, slit from throat to vent, with a nick on either side of the neck, dropped at Long Jack’s feet.

“Hi!” said Long Jack, with a scoop of his mittened hand. The cod’s liver dropped in the basket. Another wrench and scoop sent the head and offal flying, and the empty fish slid across to Uncle Salters, who snorted fiercely. There was another sound of tearing, the backbone flew over the bulwarks, and the fish, headless, gutted, and open, splashed in the tub, sending the salt water into Harvey’s astonished mouth. After the first yell, the men were silent. The cod moved along as though they were alive, and long ere Harvey had ceased wondering at the miraculous dexterity of it all, his tub was full.

*It has given me quite different ideas for further reading as well, I should note: I have already read short stories by four very well-known writers I had never read before, and am feeling like I “need to get out more.”

**Surely this is a thing, too though—some sort of “inverse of work” novel, about children with teachers, or people with servants, or something.

2 comments to “Is it true what you told me jest now, that you never done a hand’s turn o’ work in all your born life? Must feel kinder awful, don’t it?”

  • Huh. I wonder if it depends how the reader defines a “work” story. For instance, I wouldn’t necessarily disqualify what you call a business story… it’s just a different type of work, no?
    Biblibio recently posted..Sci-fi shortsMy Profile

  • I wouldn’t not-count it as work if it’s business-type work; my point with that was that the work itself isn’t shown very much. Just enough, basically, to get a business off the ground, and then we follow the “moguls” as they live their new, wealthier, lifestyle. “Business Talk” is also about starting a business, but percentagewise, more of the story is about the actual work the narrator has to do to get that off the ground.

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