At the moment of Barack Obama's inauguration, American workers find themselves in deep trouble. With more and more businesses downsizing or closing their doors, it's become clear that our jobs provide not only economic security but a sense of who we are.
In 2001, Sonoma County writer Daniel Coshnear published a collection of stories titled Jobs & Other Preoccupations. If the book, which won the 2000 Willa Cather Fiction Prize, isn't already a cult classic, it certainly should be. Clearly, the collection is even more relevant now than when it
Coshnear's stories drop readers into the lives of characters whose jobs and employment prospects are at the center of their existence. That makes these characters pretty much like the rest of us.
Work is a subject that American writers traditionally steer clear of, yet film and television have long recognized the comic and dramatic value of the workplace. In literature, from Kafka on, the job only seems to hit pay dirt when the inhumanity and/or bureaucracy of the enterprise is pushed to the level of absurdity.
The revelation of Coshnear's book is that the jobs and the humanity go together. This may be because a number of the jobs in his stories are in the lower-paying social-service realm, serving clients who are teetering toward oblivion. Here are the addicts, the mentally unstable, the chronically homeless—in other words, the fastest growing demographic in America.
Coshnear was born and raised in Baltimore. He spent 10 years working social-service jobs in New York before moving to California in 1992. After finishing his undergraduate work at the New School in San Francisco, he earned his MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. He teaches regularly in the Bay Area through extension programs at SFSU, UC Berkeley and at the Sitting Room in Cotati. Coshnear lives in Guerneville with his wife, Susan, and their children, Circe and Daedalus.
One of the things I admire about Coshnear's stories is that his characters, whether in self-awareness or delusion, display an introspection and humanity that remind us of ourselves.
Here's Kash, from the beginning of Coshnear's story "Where's Fran Hayes?":
It's Tuesday, which is my Sunday, and I'm entering The Shannon Arms to share a liquid lunch with one of my oldest friends, Dorfman. A while back I thought I was on the death slope, the sensation of a blade twisting under the ribs on my lower right side that left as mysteriously as it came, but not without implications, resolutions. I resolved to be the worker of the month at my job. I resolved to catch up with my old friends.
The bar is long and dark with a low ceiling. Dorfman has his boot heels hooked in the rung of his barstool, his head down. He looks like a wet long-haired dog with glasses. He's reading the cover of a matchbook. I want to be eager to see him and I might give him a slap on the shoulder, the big handshake, but the sight of him drains me. I take the matchbook out of his fingers and read an ad for the One Way Truck Driving School—
areligious vocational program. He downs the remainder of his stout.
"You're going to drive a truck?" I say.
"Why not?" He's sullen because I'm two beers late.
In "Custodian," a story from a new collection awaiting a publisher, Manny, a school janitor, is quizzed by his high school son Cesar for a school project.
"How did you choose your career?"
Manny smiles. "Well, when I finished medical school and law school, top of my class—"
"Come on, Pop."
"I felt I had many choices, but—"
"Be real. How'd you get started?"
"I had a passion for picking strawberries."
"The whole life story?" Cesar exhales.
"And I loved the ladies, the way they filled their baskets, ah, the way they bent over. Yes indeed, my first choice was love."
"Tell me about your education. I'm kind of in a hurry. We could start there."
"Did you get that down about my first choice?"
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Dan Coshnear's first choice is to allow his characters to be themselves. His stories embody the kind of compassion we need for these times.
Novelist Bart Schneider was the founding editor of 'Hungry Mind Review' and 'Speakeasy Magazine.' His latest novel is 'The Man in the Blizzard.' Lit Life is a new biweekly feature. You can contact Bart at [ mailto:[email protected] ][email protected]
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