'Working Men' examines consequences

December 08, 1993|By Mike Wilson | Mike Wilson,Knight-Ridder News Service

We will suffer the consequences of what we do. Michael Dorris reinforces that simple, sorrowful truth on virtually every page of "Working Men," his lush and mystical book of stories about the inseparability of life and work.

Mr. Dorris, author of eight other books, including the novel "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," shows in these 14 stories that it is not possible to leave one's work at the office. Who we are affects what we do and vice versa. We take home a paycheck but also pay a price. Yet always there is hope, a sense that good things can happen.

In the powerful first story, "The Benchmark," we meet Frank, who digs ponds for a living, "no two the same." He learned the skill from his father and hoped to pass it on to his second son, Ben, who "had the eye, no question." Then came the day when the boy went skating on thin ice on his own property.

"By the time we thought where to search," Frank tells us, "the temperature had dropped, mending the hole, leaving as evidence only a glare in the shape of an explosion. I grabbed a pick, slammed it down and a pool broke through, then I dove into the darkness calling his name until my mouth was filled. I touched the bottom with my palms -- it was but ten feet -- and encountered only silt, grainy as powder. But when I ascended, Ben blocked my entrance. Obedient and sorry, he had floated to the sound of our voices."

A neighbor boy drowned alongside Ben, but, Frank says, "No word of blame was hurled. None was needed. Everyone knew which man had dug the hole."

Despite the deaths, and his complicity in them, Frank does not stop making ponds. Digging holes is what he does; the work is a part of him.

The stories derive their power not just from big ideas like that one, but also from small touches. Mr. Dorris is a wonderful observer. In "Qiana," he describes a long-standing marriage as "the kind of arrangement a twin brother and sister might concoct, the kind where two people had read each other's minds so long they had lost interest in the novelty."

In "The Vase," a man explains why he does not want the things his widowed mother gives him: She "is determined to transfer herself to me one item at a time, to bind us through a bridge of things. When her house has been emptied into mine, there will be no choice but for her to follow, or for her to die."

Mr. Dorris has a remarkable ability to get inside the skin of people unlike himself. In "Name Games" he is Alex, a woman in touch with her past life but not her present one; in "Decoration Day" he is Edna, who commits a brutal and terrifying killing; in "The Dark Snake" he becomes Rebecca, a grieving and vengeful mother. Each of these characters is fully drawn, completely believable.

Yet the author never strays from his theme: Working men stand in the background of each of these stories, performing their tasks and influencing what other people do.

Don Banta, the narrator of "Jeopardy," affects people in ways he could never have predicted. Don, on the road all the time, peddles pharmaceuticals to doctors. Nights, he makes it a point to call his father, an embittered old man who dreams of game-show glory. Then Don goes to the hotel bar and seeks the company of other salesmen, some of whom become lovers.

One night, Don gets no answer when he phones home: Dad is dead. He feels responsible because he wasn't there for the old man. He is redeemed when he learns that one of his products -- something he gave away as a bribe -- has saved a life somewhere else.

"There's purposes we don't suspect, side paths we don't venture but a few steps down, and yet there's a give-and-take that leads forward, a surprise when we don't even know we need it," Don thinks. "For the first time in a while I remember I'm a part of the flow, more than I admit, a river that can best be witnessed from very far away."

This sense of surprise, of mystery, informs many of the stories in "Working Men." Mr. Dorris acknowledges the high cost of working but also believes in the ethereal. His characters think they understand a situation, only to encounter forces they never knew existed.

In "Shining Agate," perhaps the finest story in the collection, an anthropologist moves to a remote Alaskan fishing village to observe the people and collect local legends. The price of his work is that he never fits in; he is seen as an interloper. But as in all of these stories, there is hope, a chance for real understanding. For the anthropologist, the chance arrives by way of a knock on the door, late at night.


Title: "Working Men"

Author: Michael Dorris

Publisher: Henry Holt

0$ Length, price: 286 pages, $19.95

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