The Coal Shoveller by Keith Fort

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A writer tries to create a short story while looking through his window at an African American man shoveling coal into a basement across the street. He experiments with various stylistic approaches and characters but repeatedly gives up. After his first abortive attempt, he writes: “To ask words to make fiction into photographic realism is to demand a performance which they are totally incapable of giving.”

He begins a personal story. His six-year-old daughter enters his study and breaks his concentration, so he takes her outside into the snow. He is only imagining this scenario, however, as he is actually still writing. Once again he stops. He now is beginning to sound like James Joyce in “The Dead” (1914)—a story that ends with a typical Joycean epiphany. He writes: “I am inclined to agree with those who say that literature (no matter how negative the theme) which reinforces the habit of extracting ideas from reality panders to the self-interest of the middle class.”

Still determined to persevere, the narrator next begins a story involving an old woman telling her grandson about Washington, D.C., of the past. Now his sentences sound like the convoluted, hypnotic prose of William Faulkner. He does not like to imitate but candidly admits: “I wish I could honestly see the fall of the Old South as tragic in the way that Faulkner did.”

Increasingly frustrated, the narrator indulges in self-recrimination, blaming himself for being emotionally bankrupt, nihilistic, arrogant, and narrow-minded. He now decides to try writing a visceral, action-packed story and invents a young white coal shoveller named Reginald Cowpersmith, who uses his status as a building employee to get into a young woman’s apartment in order to rape her. After getting well into a convincing yarn, he breaks off and exclaims: “God, but I hate bastards who write stories like that.”

Finally, he tries to write a satirical vignette in which an anonymous writer befriends the black coal shoveller in a bar frequented by middle-class whites vaguely associated with the arts. He wants to expose the hypocrisy of white liberal...

(The entire section is 526 words.)