Work -- it can offer validity and a means of escape. Help fight loneliness and boost self-esteem. Possibly sink relationships or improve one's social standing.
Such theories are explored in a collection of 32 short stories titled Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar (Harper Perennial), edited by Richard Ford. It is a rich compendium that seeks to define, defend, and explain the importance of work using complex characters that range from a veteran waiter aboard a train to a lauded but aging poet seeking his muse in Italy.
Most societies rely on work to help define, judge, idolize, or shun a person, and many succumb to the urge of asking someone they just met what exactly they do for a living -- a practice that Ford writes is often regarded as impolite and aggressive.
"It was as if doing such a garish thing one would basically be saying, 'Well, now... what makes you so goddamn sure you're solid on the earth?'"
But it is exactly this suggestion that indirectly or directly drives most of the protagonists.
The masterpiece in this collection is quite possibly A Solo Song: For Doc by James Alan McPherson. Never has a narrative about a waiter serving a passenger aboard a train been so suspenseful, or the description of a job so compelling. In the story, a black man who has worked aboard trains nearly all his life fights for his job with steely persistence despite bosses who try to force him to quit after decades of successful service.
His reason for defending his job is simple: "There were no civil rights or marches or riots for something better in those days. In those days a man found something he liked to do and liked it from then on because he couldn't help himself."
Other stories explore the satisfaction derived from work, and how work often becomes an organic extension of oneself.
In Drummond & Son, Charles D'Ambrosio relies on sharp imagery to describe a man who fixes typewriters for a living: "As far back as Drummond could recall, he'd had typewriter parts in his pockets and ink in the crevices of his fingers and a light sheen of Remington gun oil on his skin."
Work also can be a source of security and comfort when it indulges one's personality traits, as seen in High Lonesome by Joyce Carol Oates: "In school, saluting the American flag felt good to him. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Wearing the Beechum County Sheriff's Department uniform. Keeping his weapon clean."
But for all its fulfilling aspects, work is largely driven by need, greed, and expectations, often leading to a frustrated life best described by Jeffrey Eugenides in the Great Experiment, which captures the dull reality of a man struggling to support his middle-class family.
"In this real world, there were things like custom software and ownership percentages and Machiavellian corporate struggles, all of which resulted in the ability to drive a heartbreakingly beautiful forest-green Range Rover up your own paved drive," he writes.
Most stories in the collection are based in the United States, leading to a somewhat monotonous reading experience brilliantly broken up by the Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, who offers a refreshing, one-sided love story between a tour guide in India and a female tourist.
The collection also includes a short story by Junot Diaz, Edison, New Jersey, which portrays the everyday life of blue-collar workers in stark terms: "I sit next to this three-hundred-pound rock-and-roll chick who washes dishes at the Friendly's. She tells me about the roaches she kills with her water nozzle. Boils the wings right off them."
The book's release comes as the U.S. unemployment rate drops to its lowest level in two years and as U.S. businesses try to recover from a global economic crisis, posting the largest number of job openings in more than two years.
The sting of the crisis, and the massive layoffs that ensued, recalls a passage in The Deposition, by Tobias Wolff, published in the New Yorker in 2006: "Burke knew the whole story, and it disgusted him -- especially the workers who'd let the owners screw them like this while patting them on the head, congratulating them for being the backbone of the country, salt of the earth, the true Americans."