“What do you do?”
Of course, the question isn’t “What do you like to do?” It isn’t even “Who are you?” that grandest and most open-ended of personal inquiries. It’s the suggestion that we are, as productive human beings, always in a place where we should be doing something, and that what we do with our time is an essential expression of who we are and who we hope to be. Of course, anyone that’s worked a temp job, a data entry job, a telemarketing job, a retail job, a janitorial job, might not say that the way they make money is really who they are. Or they might feel a deep affinity with the clerking, the shoveling, the building, the frying, and declare themselves proudly for it. Because the answer to the doing question is almost always answered with an “I am” statement. I am working. I am busy. I am needed, somewhere.
The multitudes of working life are beautifully chronicled in Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work, an anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford. Ford, the next best thing to the late great John Updike when it comes to stories of the middle-class American wage earner, dedicates the anthology to Raymond Carver, no small irony since one of his stories, “Elephant,” was not permitted to be included in the collection, due to the Carver estate withholding permission. Nevertheless, Ford, in his blue-collar brilliance, has collected 32 stories that swirl around examining exactly what it is we do—for a living, for a life, lived long-term or day-to-day. In his introduction, Ford notes that, as he watched his father working as a traveling salesman in the 1940s and 50s, the symbolic value of work was as significant as its monetary ends. “Work—having a job, being employed, making a living—became virtually synonymous with its gifts, and as such became a virtue in itself.” If who you are is how you assert your right to participate in the world, suggests Ford, then the work and careers we pursue represent our individual quests to find purpose, to find our place. “Work is near the heart of human things,” Ford says, and in the stories included in this collection, we see work for pay and work for promise constantly confused.
Certain jobs must be dispassionately communicated—Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Great Experiment” is less about the work of accounting and more about what a man does to squeeze every last (illegally) obtained drop of profit from it. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” the classic story that launched her into the literary world, could make anyone with an interest in character studies run out and start a tour guide-for-hire business. And James Alan McPherson’s “A Solo Song: For Doc” delves deep into the details of waiting tables—the authority of those masters of the form, who can “take the shit without getting hot.”
But then there are the jobs that make for revelations. Edward P. Jones’s inclusion, “The Store” turns a teenage boy’s first job in a grocery store into a lesson in the consequences of adulthood. Z.Z. Packer’s “Geese”, a tale of twenty-somethings in Japan, dwells so long on what food means to the near-starving that you savor each bite with them, lingering on “the warm disk of banana from side to side in his mouth until . . . it had grown so soft that he swallowed it like liquid.” Stories of employment—and unemployment—often become experiments in how long you are willing to go without doing something—without stealing, without lying, without prostituting yourself or your deepest held beliefs. Annie Proulx’s “Job History” follows a lifetime of career choices, watching a progression from scraping together funds as insurance for a good life to unavoidable, unanticipated tragedies. And no degree of care can prevent late-breaking disasters, and no career is idiot proof, despite what Lewis Robinson’s “Officer Friendly” might suggest.
The best stories, and the ones that stay with you the longest, are the ones in which the details of the work drive the tiny moments of character development. Donald Barthelme’s hilarious “Me and Miss Mandible” explores the student-teacher relationship as a problem of interoffice romance (in which one can be studying fractions and functioning as a claims adjuster at the same time.) Barthelme’s hero notes, “I return again and again to the problem of my future.” The same is true for Richard Bausch’s sheriff facing accusations of sexual harassment, the professional disgrace seeping into his home life as poisonous as a nest of yellow jackets hidden in an unreachable perch. Though the melodrama that encircles the story isn’t completely earned, the festering rage of the accusations drive every other reaction towards an inevitable implosion. But a career is also character-building in an imaginative sense, letting you play at an identity before committing to it. Ann Beattie’s “The Working Girl” makes the case that the work you do is only as valuable as the impression you make. And yet Beattie teases out the possibilities within the “working girl” designation by imagining all the different narratives futures that career choice might portend.
We know how this story will end.
How will it end?
It will end badly—which means predictably—because either the beautiful wife will triumph, and then it will be just another such story, or the wife will turn out to be not so interesting after all, and by default the working girl will win.
When is the last time you heard of a working girl triumphing?
The most haunting inclusion in this anthology is Elizabeth Strout’s “Pharmacy,” which chronicles the sad longing-filled friendship of a pharmacist and his young assistant. Through Henry’s eyes, we come to fall in love with the day-to-day of the workplace. “The ritual was pleasing, as though the old store—with its shelves of toothpaste, vitamins, cosmetics, hair adornments, even sewing needles and greeting cards, as well as red rubber hot water bottles, enema pumps—was a person altogether steady and steadfast.” His desire to keep the world in balance by way of running his store, and his inability to rescue his assistant Denise from her troubled life, turns his workplace into more than just a place of business—instead, “a healthy autonomic nervous system in a workable, quiet state.” The business becomes the place of redemption, and the graveyard of missed opportunities.
When the job becomes important enough, it becomes its own story. And no story may be so appealing or maddening as that of the story of writing, the daily grind of creative production, as much a desk job as a vocation or a calling. John Cheever’s classic story “The World of Apples” represents the mandatory inclusion in this volume, as a poet finds it impossible to escape from his writing impulses even when in retirement and on vacation in Rome. “Two admirers—a young married couple—came at five to praise him. They had met on a train, each of them carrying a copy of his Apples. They had fallen in love along the lines of the pure and ardent love he described. Thinking of his day’s work, Bascomb hung his head.” The same story emerges at the opposite end of the spectrum, the experience of the young writer just hitting his stride, in Nicholas Delbanco’s “The Writers Trade.” This story reads like the Wall Street of foreboding tales of the creative process, as a young writer, with all the glittering arrival of a career in its nascence. “All this was bounty, a gift.” And later, the melancholy realization: “Between self-pity and aggrandizement, there is little room to maneuver.”
Such is the case in any profession, and in every piece in this sparkling collection, we negotiate the hazy space between what we do and what we think we can do. As Andre Dubus’ newspaper boy makes his way down a quiet street, as Eudora Welty’s traveling salesmen panics when he has to shack up with strangers, as the editorial assistant and the line cook and the bus driver wonder what, if anything, comes next, we examine stories of work as maps, for new highways to travel on, or upcoming dead ends. And we fear asking ourselves the question of Cheever’s too-accomplished poet, “Had the world, as well as he, lost its way?”