Michael Dorris established himself as a novelist of distinction with A YELLOW RAFT IN BLUE WATER (1987). WORKING MEN entitles him to a place among the significant American short-story writers of his generation.
The title of the book suggests something of its thematic concerns. Many of these stories are about men who are more or less defined by the work they do. Yet the work they do is varied: characters include an anthropologist, a traveling salesman, a designer of artificial lakes, and two railroad workers. The relation of the characters to their work varies as well. For the protagonist of “The Benchmark,” his work is a vocation if not an obsession; characters in “Oui” and “Earnest Money” drift into whatever is available.
The men and their work exist within complex emotional relationships, treated by Dorris with a remarkable tonal variety. The almost total absence of humor in “The Benchmark” is unusual in Dorris’ work, yet humor is seldom Dorris’ only aim. The protagonist of “Qiana,” who goes from buying a shirt on impulse, to an impulsive turnaround in his life, and finally to second thoughts about his impulses, makes readers smile; but the pain of his confusion and the pain he inflicts on others are honestly registered. At one level “Jeopardy” may be regarded as an ironic variation on the lore and legend of the traveling salesman, yet it is also a story of compelling emotional power.
The stories do not focus exclusively on men. As he established in A YELLOW RAFT IN BLUE WATER, Dorris can create memorable female characters, and, what is for a male writer even more remarkable, convincing and expressive female narrators, as in “Anything,” “The Dark Snake,” and “Decoration Day.” The authenticity of the narrative voice in these stories suggests Dorris’ mastery of language; he frequently achieves the intensity of poetry without abandoning the rhythms of American vernacular speech. WORKING MEN reaffirms Dorris’ importance as artist and working man.