Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work
- Richard Ford
- Harper Perennial
- 590 pp.
- Reviewed by Y.S. Fing
- April 25, 2011
Raymond Carver’s shadow looms large over this collection of stories that illuminate the emotional fallout when reality doesn’t meet our desires.
Reviewed by Y.S. Fing
Who needs another collection of short stories? Aren’t there plenty of unpublished authors deserving of a chance to benefit from the ever-diminishing resources of the publishing industry? Why is Richard Ford, the author of 10 books, still burning the candle for Raymond Carver, who is in no need of further approbation?
If the reader can get beyond these questions, Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work contains its rewards. However, the parameters of these rewards are defined by Carver. The book is dedicated to Carver, under whose shadow, it seems, short story writers still dwell. Ford “regrets that Raymond Carver’s estate declined to allow his story ‘Elephant’ to be included.”
Carver’s influence on Ford’s choices are clear. The stories, such as “Unjust” by Richard Bausch, “Edison, New Jersey” by Junot Diaz and “The Store” by Edward P. Jones, begin with minimalist approaches to character development, presenting the reader with narrative holes out of which they must dig. The emotional key is loss or incompleteness, and these feelings pervade throughout, as in “The Pharmacy” by Elizabeth Strout and “Geese” by Z.Z. Packer. Even those characters whose careers are successful, and there are few of them, are wrought with the unspoken, unidentified emptiness of which Raymond Carver is the acknowledged master.
Carver himself, who famously abhorred “writers writing about writing,” edited a book of short stories in the last years of his life, an edition of American Short Story Masterpieces, and Ford’s choices are reminiscent of that collection. Publisher’s Weekly refers to that book as in the “narrative tradition,” and states that the “unexperimental stories are substantial.” Ford has included such “experimental” writers as T.C. Boyle and Donald Barthelme, but their stories are among their most conventional and well known. Boyle’s “Zapatos” is a wicked little piece about getting around the corruption of Third World governance. And Barthelme’s even wickeder “Me and Miss Mandible” ends with the Kafka-esquely displaced insurance adjustor copulating with his sixth-grade teacher in the coat room. These are the sly laughs the reader obtains between such gray and grungy pieces as Ford’s own “Under the Radar,” Annie Proulx’s “Job History” and Eudora Welty’s “Death of a Traveling Salesman.”
Rewards exist for readers and writers who are enamored of Carver’s (and America’s) nonintellectual, emotionally charged, narrative traditional style, as in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” Lewis Robinson’s “Officer Friendly” and James Alan McPherson’s “A Solo Song: For Doc.” It’s all about feeling here, and the feelings are powerful. We commit ourselves — our lives — to our work, and we suffocate. We sacrifice for our families and our pride, and we gain nothing. We try and we fail. We all desire something outside of ourselves to fulfill us, actualize us, make us complete. Ford’s authors paint clear pictures of how far short our realities fall from these desires, and the consequent emotional fallout.
Ford’s “Introduction” gives us two quotations that resonate throughout the readings. The first comes from his own mother after her 35-year-old son, who had already published two novels, “each of which brought some credit to me,” obtained a “low-level, no-future teaching job” at Princeton. His mother virtually swooned: “Oh, Richard, I’m so glad you’re finally starting out.” Ford suggests two revealing things here: that writing is not a job and that the jobs we obtain in the working world are mirages.
The other quotation comes from a cocktail party on the Maine seacoast. Ford found his host reading one of his books, and he’d had enough to drink to ask, “What do you do for a living?” Ford suggests that his host’s answer would have made a good short story: “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.” This quotation seems to echo Ford’s mother: writing is not work, and work is overrated.
It’s no surprise, then, that the stories in this collection reflect both opinions. Ford discusses how the theme of work galvanized his editing, “as a pure attention grabber, as a moral direction pointer and as an ignition mechanism for illuminating” the “unknown about humankind.” No doubt Raymond Carver would approve. He would also approve that all proceeds from the book will go to the free programs offered by 826michigan, the nonprofit organization founded by the author Dave Eggers to encourage creative writing among young people.
Does the world need another collection of short stories? However one answers, there can be no begrudging Ford’s choices, nor his motivation in propagating 826michigan, nor his desire to keep Raymond Carver on people’s minds.
Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a community college in the D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as “Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College-Level Composition” and “Event Horizons:Aphorisms on the Life of D. Selby Fing” (http://www.dselbyfing.com/).