(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Elwood Reid’s first collection of short stories seeks to give a literary voice to characters who generally would not be expected to write about their experiences themselves. They are almost all blue-collar men who battle the hardships imposed by physically demanding yet financially unsatisfactory jobs, precarious love lives, and varying degrees of alcohol abuse. Many of the narratives read like the stories one would expect to hear talking to one of these men in a bar or beside a fish-rich river.

Critics have compared Reid to Raymond Carver and detected emotional and stylistic similarities between Carver’s and Reid’s protagonists. Like Carver, Reid strives hard to create for his characters genuine voices and to make them react realistically to experiences and circumstances that could be those of a frustrated working-class man.

Pain and suffering, whether emotional or physical, abound in Reid’s fictional universe. Most of his narrators, and their friends and enemies, have been hit hard by life. There are also adult men who have become mentally disabled as a result of car accidents, and their fate could be read as a symbolic reminder of the harshness with which contemporary society treats working-class men.

As an author, Reid has worked hard to establish his blue-collar credentials. His characters exemplify some of the roughness existing in working-class life, yet the reader may be reminded of Jack Nicholson’s character Bobby Dupea in Bob Rafaelson’s movie, Five Easy Pieces (1970). Bobby tried hard to eradicate his past as a concert pianist by becoming an oil-rig worker, yet he never lost the sense of being an outside observer of his new world. Occasionally, the reader may feel that such a slight but real distance exists between Elwood Reid and some of his most successfully drawn characters.

“What Salmon Know”

The tale of two rough, drunken carpenters fishing salmon in Alaska is Reid’s first published story and a powerful reflection on humanity’s relationship with nature. In “What Salmon Know,” Craig and Marley, coworkers in the cold wilderness of Alaska, face a crisis in their friendship when Craig, the narrator, ponders an offer to work on “a new fruit-juice plant in Hawaii.” The hardened Marley scoffs at Craig for even considering a “soft” life. The choice between Alaska and Hawaii, however, becomes almost too simplistic a dramatic device to illustrate two extremes.

Marley is a character who perceives of life as a series of self-set challenges and appears to be a vulgarized version of an Ernest Hemingway character. When he and Craig start fishing, he loses expensive equipment to the harsh river and yet is satisfied to land fish after fish, demonstrating that money itself has no value to him. Yet Marley and Craig experience a certain fall from grace when, in their haste to make it back to the beer and the warmth of a nearby bar, they fail to kill the salmon. Instead, they carry the live fish on a string over their back as they walk to the bar.

In a typically graphic scene, the dying salmon spawn sperm and eggs onto the backs of the men. Astonished, they react with humor but Craig realizes that they have somehow violated an unwritten code of conduct.

Cleaning the fish outside the bar, they are approached by two soldiers. One soldier, who has caught a large salmon, cuts two fillets out of the live fish before releasing it to die in the water. This...

(The entire section is 1425 words.)