The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is now approaching four years old, but judging by mass culture, you might think it never happened at all. The bands are still brightly lit and beautiful on the Grammys. Jay-Z and Kanye are still competing about who’s richer on “Watch the Throne.” The actress who played the union-busting “Iron Lady” is walking away with an Oscar, perhaps largely because the movie avoids mentioning all the union-busting. Here and there a dispatch from the real world of foreclosures, unemployment, and diminished expectations leaks out—think Ryan Bingham’s “Junkie Star,” a new Bruce Springsteen album, a Pete Seeger sighting at Zuccoti Park. But those are largely voices screaming into the wind of a passing train.
So it’s refreshing to see a major publishing that is pitched to the economic mood of the moment (if a moment is, well, half a decade). Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work (Harper Perennial, 2011) is a collection of 31 different stories by different authors, edited by Richard Ford. All Ford’s proceeds benefit 826michigan, a Michigan-based effort that provides free youth writing, tutoring, and publishing programs.
The stories are all previously published and all more or less modern, with Eudora Welty and John Cheever being the oldest authors with work represented in the collection. James Salter and Richard Yates stand up for the golden age of New Yorker fiction. Andre Dubus, Joyce Carol Oates, T. Coraghessan Boyle and many other leading lights from Ford’s baby boom generation are here in abundance. Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri do what they can to skew the sample size younger, but the choices here are mostly from the ranks of the short story establishment.
And ultimately that tendency is not a bad thing for the anthology. For many readers, it may well have been too long since Dubus’ Selected Stories or The Stories of John Cheever or even Banks’ The Angel on the Roof came down off the shelves. Here’s a chance to find them in a fresh place, comingling with their peers and with people whom we think they ought to have something in common. They all write about work, after all. So welcome, old masters. Come in, have a cocktail. Tell us about your day at the office.
And for any ageism that might be on display, a strength of the anthology really is its diversity of forms. As a short story writer, Ford draws on a certain minimalist tradition — the epigraph is to Ray Carver, “in memory with love,” and Ford’s editorial note at the end bemoans the inability to come to terms with Carver’s estate on including the late writer’s story, “Elephant.” But this collection takes a big-tent approach to work, with a diverse selection of authors, from to Barthelme to Diaz. Different time periods, different milieus, different writing styles. The book is arranged alphabetically, so one can have the pleasure of reading Barthelme’s deftly ironic, “Me and Miss Mandible” right before Richard Bausch’s “Unjust,” a dark tale that follows the thread of suburban discontent to its climax in violence. Ann Beattie’s “Working Girl” follows next, “a story about Jeannette” that methodically deconstructs the way one would tell a story about Jeannette, the titular working girl. George Chamber’s two-page, “(I Thought My Father Looked Like FDR)” is a short, sad slice of slogging away at retirement-home work, before Cheever’s much longer rumination on a poet with writer’s block.
Many readers, of course, will not read the stories in consecutive fashion. That’s all right. Unlike a single-author collection, we don’t have to be bogged down in debating story order, how the placement of this story in that place contributes or takes away from any broader arc. A single-author collection can sometimes work that way, with a kind of steady movement toward a broad thematic goal—think of the way “The Dead” anchors Dubliners, as one classic example. Here readers can flip through and take each story on its own terms, and let it stand alone, before weighing it against its near neighbors or trying to reconcile it with the broader themes of the collection.
And the selections do come to be a healthy cross-section of American working life, whether it’s working class, professional, or artistic — that is, of course, the title of the collection’s implied promise, and the collection delivers on it. Thomas McGuane paints a moving portrait of the lonely life of a cattle hand in “Cowboy.” Elizabeth Strout’s “Pharmacy” studies the poignant, slightly sensual relationship between a childless pharmacist and his young, married assistant. James Alan McPherson’s “A Solo Song: For Doc” depicts the class and racial struggle between porters and the railroad companies in the dying age of rail travel. Jim Shepard chronicles the strange bond of two secret ops agents, alienated from their fellow man and even their wives by the wages of their lonely profession. A delivery man falls for a maid in Diaz’s “Edison, New Jersey.” The wearying work of writers receives a fair treatment, as in “The World of Apples” and Nicholas Delbanco’s “The Writer’s Trade.” Here and there a story catches up to the world we live in today; Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Great Experiment” finds a disappointed editor rolling the dice on cheating his pornographer-turned-publisher boss. And the collection ends with “A Glutton for Punishment,” by Richard Yates, where a middling employee marches haplessly down the road to unemployment, seemingly powerless in the face of some inner inability to manage success, however modest.
“They got me,” Yates’ Walter proclaims, presaging the thoughts if not the words of many people in the last four years. But as the economy ticks back upwards, with employment finally starting to noticeably increase, and with success stories such as the Michigan auto industry giving at least some encouragement, perhaps the lesson to be taken is not from Walter. Perhaps it is Edward P. Jones’ protagonist in “The Store” from whom we should take our moral. An aimless teenager, he finds a place for himself at a black-owned store, and somewhat in spite of himself he comes to first run the place, then own it outright. And it costs him, in other ways. But he has, seemingly for the better, found out something about himself, something positive, something that he might be able to live with. Does work set you free? Maybe not exactly. But it beats the alternative, as Walter could probably tell you.
Learn more about the 826michigan project
Check out this interview:
“‘Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar’: Story of Work by Richard Ford,” by Jeff Glor, CBS News, April 19, 2011
“Workplace Fiction That’s True to Life,” by Bryan Burrough, The New York Times, April 16, 2011
“Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar,” by Y.S. Fing, The Washington Independent Review of Books, 2011
“Book Review: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar,” by David Hill, The New Zealand Herald, Aug 9, 2011
Short story collections by Richard Ford:
Rock Springs, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987
Women with Men, Knopf, 1997
A Multitude of Sins, Knopf, 2002
Previous homes for the stories:
“Business Talk,” by Max Apple, Free Agents, HarperCollins
“The Gully,” by Russell Banks, Success Stories, Harper & Row
“Me and Miss Mandible,” by Donald Barthelme, from Come Back, Dr. Caligari; Sixty Stories, Putnam Adult, 1981
“Unjust,” by Richard Bausch, from The Stories of Richard Bausch, Harper, 2003
“The Working Girl,” Ann Beattie, from What Was Mine, Random House, 1991
“Zapatos,” by T. Coreghessan Boyle, from If the River Was Whiskey, Viking, 1989
“(I thought my father looked like FDR),” by George Chambers, from The Bonnyclabber, 1972
“The World of Apples,” by John Cheever, from The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf, 1978
“Drummond & Son,” Charles D’Ambrosio, from The Dead Fish Museum, Knopf, 2006
“The Writers’ Trade,” by Nicholas Delbanco, from The Writers’ Trade, William Morrow & Co, 1990
“Edison, New Jersey,” by Junot Diaz, from Drown, Riverhead, 1996
“Delivering,” by Andre Dubus, from Finding a Girl in America, David R. Godine, 1993
“Sauerkraut Soup,” by Stuart Dybek, from Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, Viking, 1980
“The Flaw in the Design,” by Deborah Eisenberg, from Twilight of the Superheroes, Picador, 2006
“Great Experiment,” by Jeffrey Eugenides
“Under the Radar,” by Richard Ford, from A Multitude of Sins, Knopf, 2002
“The Store,” by Edward P. Jones, from Lost in the City, William Morrow and Co, 1992
“Interpreter of Maladies,” by Jumpa Lahiri, from Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000
“Cowboy” by Thomas McGuane, from Gallatin Canyon, Knopf, 2006
“A Solo Song: For Doc,” by James Alan McPherson, from Hue and Cry, Little Brown, 1969
“Some Women,” by Alice Munro, from Too Much Happiness, Knopf, 2009
“High Lonesome,” by Joyce Carol Oates, from High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966 – 2006, Ecco, 2006
“Geese,” by ZZ Packer, from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead Books, 2003
“The Valiant Woman,” by J. F. Powers, from The Stories of J. F. Powers, New York Review of Books, 2000
“Job History,” by Annie Proulx, from Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Scribner, 1999
“Officer Friendly,” by Lewis Robinson, from Officer Friendly and Other Stories, Harper, 2003
“Foreign Shores,” by James Salter, from Dusk and Other Stories, Modern Library, 2010
“Pharmacy,” by Elizabeth Strout, from Olive Kitteredge, Random House, 2008
“Death of a Traveling Salesman,” by Eudora Welty, from A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, Mariner Books, 1979
“The Deposition,” by Tobias Wolff, from Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, Knopf, 2008
“A Glutton for Punishment,” by Richard Yates, from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness; The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, Henry Holt and Co, 2001