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by Elwood Reid

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-385-49121-2
Publisher: Doubleday

Tough-as-nails stories of blue-collar men running low on chances, luck and hope, by the author of the novel If I Don’t Six (not reviewed). In Reid’s universe there are two kinds of jobs: bad ones that you can, with difficulty, stomach, and awful ones that you can’t. His protagonists—carpenters, machinists, handymen, almost all desperate for work—have only their pride and native wit to sustain them. And that isn’t enough. They drink too much, find most women unobtainable, dream of a life spent free of bosses, and know that “salary is the working man’s cancer.” Maynard (in “Lime”), down on his luck after a disastrous stint on a fishing boat, reluctantly takes on the job of caretaker at a farm owned by wealthy dilettantes. The disposal of the rotting corpse of a horse becomes the focus of a power struggle as his employer attempts to humiliate and break him, and he tries in turn, despairingly, to outwit her. In “Overtime,” Drew, a harried supervisor at a printing plant, forces a reluctant worker to put in overtime. When the man’s daughter is murdered as a result of his absence, Drew begins drinking, loses his wife and his job—and discovers a world of men like him, “out on the streets, looking for work, slightly out of shape, losing their hair.” In the title story, two sardonic construction workers in Alaska (“a postcard from hell”) find something worth fighting for when they come across soldiers who are mutilating salmon. The violence that results is liberating; the rootless narrator discovers that he “wants to know what the salmon know when they’re blasting upstream to die.” Repeatedly here, extremity is the only thing left worth having; several narrators, such as the protagonist of “Laura Borealis,” discover that only at the moment when they—re facing violence can they come close to feeling happy, unfettered. Strong, unsettling tales, narrated in a spare, pungent prose; further evidence that writing about the working classes, once a staple of American fiction, isn’t extinct yet.