Blue Collar edited by Richard Ford review

by Craig Cliff / 13 August, 2011
Richard Ford leaves too much of the hard work to the reader in his anthology Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar.
Novelist and short-story writer Richard Ford’s anthology of 32 stories about work, Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, has many virtues. It is well intentioned (all author proceeds go toward free youth writing and tutoring programmes offered by the charity 826michigan). It has big-name authors from the older guard (John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Donald Barthelme) and the current darlings (Annie Proulx, TC Boyle, Junot Diaz), alongside writers still rising to the American firmament (Jim Shepherd, Charles D’Ambrosio, Lewis Robinson).

It has a handful of A++ stories, such as Elizabeth Strout’s Pharmacy, from her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of linked stories, Olive Kitteridge, which thrives out of its initial context and permits us inside the life and labours of a small-town pharmacist. And it might even be timely: in a “time of shortage”, as Ford terms the current economic situation in his introduction, these stories “apply the consolations of literature to the complex, often perplexing matters of … getting hired, laid off, promoted, demoted, reclassified, sent home or just plain being fed up”.

But as a themed anthology, Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar is destined to perplex as much as it pleases.

Ford gives the collection a bum steer in his scattered introduction, discussing the importance of knowing how a fictional character makes his or her crust and the “payload of artful plausibility” this carries. This is true enough, but it reduces work and employment in the stories that follow to a mere facet of characterisation. A more important point, it seems to me, is how the best of these stories get to the heart of what it might be like to be a ranch hand in Montana (Tom McGuane’s Cowboy) or a storekeeper in Washington DC (Edward P Jones’s The Store), while still tapping into more universal experiences: friendship, secrets, loss.

Indeed, the stories that fall flat are those that use work as a means of characterisation without providing any insight into the work itself. The biggest flop is Ford’s own Under the Radar, which only touches on work in the fourth paragraph (Steven Reeves works at Packard-Wells, “attending technical seminars, flying to vendor conventions, then writing up detailed status reports”) before getting to the real story about infidelity.

When I read Under the Radar as part of Ford’s 2002 collection, A Multitude of Sins, it struck me as concise and memorable, the stand-out story in what was an otherwise tiresome and one-note collection. But in this new context, under this new lens, the story withered.

Conversely, with a rereading of the title story from Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection Interpreter of Maladies, the attention paid to work shifted the focus from the troubled relationship of Mr and Mrs Das, on holiday in India, to Mr Kapasi, their tour guide. Here was a self-educated man, a grafter, a dreamer; the details of his CV are drip-fed into the story to build his character and provide insights into the tasks of tour guide and interpreter.

The work performed in the stories is suitably varied (typewriter repairman, priest’s housekeeper, lawyer), but the arrangement of the stories in alphabetical order creates some odd connections and a few disharmonies. The stories traverse the last 50 years of North American life and economics and I found myself repeatedly turning to the back of the book to see when a story was first published. If Max Apple’s Business Talk is from 2004 rather than 1984, the narrator’s desire to open a frozen yoghurt stand seems more forlorn than cutting edge and the entire story takes a different slant.

Although Ford has left a lot of the hard work to the reader, those that make their way through the book will surely be rewarded. The stories by Cheever, Strout, Alice Munro and Richard Yates are vivifying examples of the form. Like the best anthologies, Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar will send you off in directions new and old, but it is hard to shake the feeling it could have been done better.

BLUE COLLAR, WHITE COLLAR, NO COLLAR: STORIES OF WORK, edited by Richard Ford (Harper Perennial, $28.99).

Craig Cliff’s short-story collection
A Man Melting won this year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.
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