April 26, 2011
Unemployed and looking for an inexpensive way to not feel miserable and lonely? Richard Ford has edited a new anthology of short stories about work and class: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar. It features an array of established authors—Ann Beattie, Donald Barthelme, Junot Díaz, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, and more—but collecting a bunch of stories about work and slapping a light blue cover on it is nothing new. In 1999 Signet Classics published a similar compilation, The Haves and Have-Nots edited by Barbara Solomon, and in 2004 Random House published Labor Days—I think you can guess what those stories are about—edited by David Gates.
All of these collections offer a thorough look at class, culture, and race —some include a few of the same authors—but if you’re on a really tight budget, Haves and Have-Nots and Labor Days are far cheaper than Ford and Harper Perennial’s snazzy, slightly-bigger-print collection. Fortunately, it justifies the steeper price by donating its proceeds to 826michigan, a nonprofit organization that offers writing workshops for kids ages 6 to 18, so it’s all good. On the other hand, The Haves and Have-Nots and Labor Days managed to get the Raymond Carver Estate hook-up—Carver is the gold standard when it comes to blue-collar stories—something Ford and Harper Perennial couldn’t swing. There’s a page at the back dedicated to the loss: “Readers will notice the conspicuous absence, in this volume, of the distinguished work of Raymond Carver. The editor regrets that Raymond Carver’s estate declined to allow his story ‘Elephant’ to be included.” Whoa. Forget about secretaries, pharmacists, and store clerks; I’d like to read a story about buying and selling Carver.
Like previous collections, Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar doesn’t bring us any new stories—all of them have been previously published. The real gem of the volume is Ford’s introduction, which warms my Rust Belt-born heart. Ford has created a context for reading the stories: work as identity. In our country, he argues, jobs define who we are. And when we lose our jobs—especially when it happens during a huge recession, like the one we have now—it’s devastating. We struggle to make sense of ourselves and our purpose in the world. We feel as though we have failed not only ourselves, but the people around us.
Even if we hate our jobs, they still provide us with stability, or at least something to occupy our time. The narrator in Junot Díaz ‘s “Edison, NJ,” delivers pool tables for a living and spends truck rides playing guessing games about where his next drop off will be because “It passes the time, gives us something to look forward to.” Walter Henderson, protagonist and fired office-worker of Richard Yates’ “A Glutton for Punishment”—which feels far more current than its 1957 publication date—is ashamed of and confounded by his state of unemployment. He tells his wife he’s going to work, but spends his days at the library because “several hours [have] to be killed before the normal time of his homecoming.”
Ford has found the emotional core of economics. If our jobs are our identities, no wonder so many of us, and the characters in Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, are dissatisfied. Whether you’re cutting shady backroom deals in a suit like Kendall in Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Great Experiment” or raking leaves outside a grocery store like the narrator of Edward P. Jones’ “The Store”, paychecks don’t bring happiness. We’re unhappy whether or not we’re unemployed.
Work, according to Ford, is “imagined… as labor, as chores, as business, as duty, as habit, as memory, as art, and as a priestly vocation.” Unfortunately, most people never have the privilege of viewing their jobs as the latter two.