With or Without

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

By WITH OR WITHOUT, Dickinson means jobs or work. These are stories about middle-class, blue-collar people who are either struggling with jobs they hate or unemployed and toughing it out. In “My Livelihood,” for example, the protagonist, a man with a family, is laid off from a milk factory. When his carpenter in-laws offer him secure work, he refuses. Instead, he takes a short break to clear his mind and manages to earn a small income from his winnings on a golf course. The garbageman hero of “The Jinx” labors to pay for his wife’s graduate school education. Shunned by his fellow workers because they have accidents when he’s around, he reverses roles and sells his hex to his former foreman, a man trying to injure himself and thereby qualify for workman’s compensation. In “Sofa Art,” a frustrated salesman of vapid felt paintings learns that his son has genuine artistic talent when the boy reluctantly draws a map of Russia for a homework assignment.

Occasionally, Dickinson’s mood turns somber. In “A Night in the Garden,” a union organizer attempts to connect with a woman on his picket line with only mingled success, and in “Risk” (an O. Henry Prize winner), a group of friends take out their frustrations on each other during a strategic war game while their host tries to reestablish intimacy with his wife, who is still mourning the loss of their child from a year before.

These stories could easily turn ugly, the characters vicious, the action violent, but it is to the author’s credit that he does not exploit the situations, use the stories to vent personal anger, or appeal to the reader’s sympathy by sentimentalizing his characters. These are people, in short, confronting life with clenched teeth, and one has to admire them for it.