November 10, 2016: “One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist” by Dustin M. Hoffman

Say hey, Story366! I hope you’ve had a good day. Yesterday, that was a bad day, which followed a very bad night. I’m not sure what else to say about things at this point, when really, I don’t think I’ve said much of anything as of yet. I’ve seen so many responses from friends on FB, many of them expressing my exact thoughts, saying things I wasn’t able to formulate, or wasn’t brave enough to try. There were thoughts about coming together, about protest, about doing great things, about helping those who are going to need our help. I think all of those things are wonderful ideas, are all things I could have said or wish I would have said first. All I know is, everyone that I’m friends with on FB who comes from the writer world, a group of around 4,500 intelligent, caring, and creative people, and I don’t know of a single one who’s on the side of the president-elect, who thinks what has happened is good, will be good, or is in any way hopeful. These are like-minded, extraordinary, special people, and there’s no way that all of them, collectively or individually, can be wrong. That gives me hope in and of itself.

Today I continue with my second Bowling Green week of the year. It’s dawned on me that some of you coming across this blog this week, let alone today, might be wondering why I’m doing a Bowling Green week, why I’m focusing on one MFA program’s alum in particular. Just to catch you up, I’m mainly choosing to do this because I got my MFA at Bowling Green, then proceeded to stay there for another sixteen years, working as a composition instructor and editor for Mid-American Review. In my time there, I met twenty classes of graduate and undergraduate students, many of which have gone on to notable acclaim as writers. As I’ve been collecting books this past year, so many of my fellow Falcons have published something I haven’t read, so I decided to use that excuse for a theme week back in February. More than anything, it’s time get to that growing stack of friends’ books.

Today is one such friend, a good one, Dustin M. Hoffman, who of course has the same name as a pretty famous actor. Oddly, in the ten or so years that I’ve known Dustin, I haven’t seen the actor Dustin Hoffman in all that many movies, and even though he’s a Hollywood legend, I’ve come to know my author friend as the Dustin Hoffman. Really, until I started writing this, I kind of forgot about the duelism of the name. Dustin is just Dustin. And he’s a helluva guy and a fantastic writer.

Which made me so very happy and not at all surprised to see him with the Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Fiction last year for his collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, a fine product from the people at the University of Nebraska Press. One thing I remember about Dustin when he was at BG was that he wrote stories about work. His characters featured people who did various jobs, focusing on them at work, doing what they do. Dustin graduated, went on to get a PhD and Western Michigan, and now teaches at Winthrop University. This debut collection, or at least the few stories that I read today, all seem to follow this work theme, Hoffman placing me in three different workplaces, all with a unique set of characters, rules, and things people have to do for money. Work isn’t necessarily interesting for what people do when they’re there—though Hoffman’s awfully convincing at that, too—but for the characters and interactions that inhabit these jobs. No story in One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist better represents this approach than the title story, which I’ll write about today.

“One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist” is about this unnamed narrator, a guy who works on a landscaping crew, specifically the kind that installs elaborate and expensive fountains for rich people. The crew is small and the work is hard, digging deep into hard ground, deep enough to find water lines. As they dig, as they carry heavy slabs of rock, as they plumb, they talk shit, a lot of it that locker room variety we’ve been hearing about as of late. During this conversation, the biggest talker, Tommy, discovers that the main pipefitter, Al, likes men instead of women, and, well, construction crews aren’t exactly the most accepting of twenty-first-century politics. The story, for a while, more or less depicts Tommy giving Al a hard time about being gay, and another guy, Rex, who’s a real follower, joins in. This goes on for a day or two until Rex, not smart enough to distinguish between giving a guy shit and actually hating him, makes a tragic mistake, Al ending up under a pile of stone at the bottom of the ditch. Surprisingly, it’s Tommy, the biggest shit-giver, who pulls Al out, drives him to the hospital when everyone else scrambles for their mobile phones.

I’ll not reveal anything further about the story, but will note how interesting I find the narration, as our protagonist seems extremely peripheral, a character who is part of the crew, part of the “we” that’s often used to tell the story, but doesn’t have much of an impact, let alone receive a name. I think that’s a brave stroke by Hoffman, telling this story from this innocent-bystanding perspective, something I don’t see a whole lot. It gives the story a voyeur-like feel, as if we’re someone watching this all go down instead of actively participating. That’s exactly what it is, of course—we’re reading a story—but there’s seems to be a double layer of that going on here, an observer observing another observer observe. However you’d describe this effect, it’s intriguing, unique.

I like the story “One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist,” plus all the other stories in the book that I’ve read. Each time, I feel like I’m starting a new job, on for my first day, everyone knowing what they’re doing and are even excellent at it. Dustin M. Hoffman has quite a debut on his hands here in One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist. I can’t wait to read the rest.