August 11, 2020: “No Good for Digging” by Dustin M. Hoffman

Hello, Story366!

Today I made a purchase I’ve been meaning to make for a long time: a weed whacker. I don’t think they call them that anymore—now it’s a “trimmer”—but I have a new one and I’m stoked. My only regret (if one can have regrets over such things) is that I didn’t get it sooner in the day. The type I bought has a battery pack, one that needs to be charged for several hours. That means when I got home, I wasn’t able to play with my new toy. Sure, I could go out there later, whack me some weeds, but I’m pretty sure this is one of those things you’re not supposed to do in the dark. Alas, no whacking today.

The good news is I usually get up early to make breakfast for the Karen and see her off to work. Tomorrow, I might get up, walk down the stairs, and immediately exit the front door. “Mike?” Karen might call out. “Eggs?” Then she’ll hear the whirring. Then she’ll know.

Let’s continue on with this current Two-Timers Week, where I cover an author for the second time here at Story366, reading from a different collection. Today I ventured into Dustin M. Hoffman‘s 2019 book, No Good for Digging, out from Word West. I last covered Hoffman in November of 2016, reviewing the title story from his debut, Hundred-Knuckled Fist. Dustin is a pal of mine, as he was going through his MFA at Bowling Green when I was still teaching there, and I had the pleasure of reading his stories. I’ve followed his career ever since, of course, so excited by his work, proud to have known him. I was also greatly honored to publish one of these pieces, “The Life Net,” in Moon City Review a few years ago.

A good portion of No Good for Digging is comprised of shorts, with longer stories tossed in-between, just to keep us honest (and to get the longer stories into the book). I read all of the shorts and liked the entire lot, as Hoffman could be mistaken for a poet if he didn’t write in paragraphs. His language is as precise as his metaphors, these stories not only projecting some seriously unique and lasting images, but he can twist a tale into something unexpected and suprising as well as anyone. My favorites include the opener, “A Nesting,” about a nest of birds getting walled in, “Cask of Amantillado”-style, during a home construction; “A Better Trap,” about better mouse containment; “Postal Heterochromia,” which deals with paranoia and privacy; “Interstate Intestine,” possibly the last road trip for the featured couple; and “Amateur Paleontologist Stumbles Into My Foot,” a story about a Frankensteinlike scientist, looking to uncover the secrets of the past instead of the mysteries of life.

One of the longer stories I read is “Grandpa Dies,” where a character relays several scenarios where his grandfather passes, Hoffman exploiting each with a colorful anecdote. They pile up, but before the bit can get stale, other people start to die, a timely and clever variation to the formula.

I’ll focus on the title story today, as it’s another good one, this “No Good for Digging.” This story’s almost the human equivalent of that opening short, “A Nesting.” Here, instead of a bird getting walled into a new home, a plumber gets trapped in a ditch, sinking into the mud as if it’s quicksand. A terrifying proposition, especially for a claustrophobic like me.

I should mention that Hoffman is really attracted to work and uses it as a theme, motif, etc., quite often. I remember him as a graduate student saying he liked to write about what people do at their jobs, and a lot of the stories in his thesis, and in Hundred-Knuckled Fist, exhibit what people do when they go to their job. Those occupations include handyman/home repair-type stuff—Hoffman was a house painter for a number of years before attending grad school—electricians, carpenters, painters, and plumbers, but also some office jobs. Work is work.

“A Nesting,” for instance, goes through all the steps of homebuilding, showing us each level of construction, each type of laborer who neglected to so anything about the birds. “No Good for Digging” takes us through another type of process, this the rescue of a man who’s sunk into the mud in a ditch in a back yard.

Hoffman gets to listing, ficitonalizing an actual process, starting with the plumber’s slow descent into the muck. Hoffman turns procedure into art with small details, like how the plumber doesn’t think he’s in trouble, at first worried more about getting his boots and uniform dirty than dying. It isn’t until his head is covered that he realizes how much trouble he’s actually in.

From there, someone has to call 911, various responders respond, and when all hope is lost, other people in other roles have to do their jobs, too. Hoffman may be procedural here, but like in all his work, he never lets us forget these workers are human, not defined by their jobs, but complemented by them. By the end of “No Good for Digging,” he reminds us that the plumber was a person, putting a perfect cap on a lovely story, providing a startling and exacting final line and image.

It’s always exciting to see writers you knew when they were relatively starting out go on to find great success. That’s certainly what I’ve experienced with Dustin M. Hoffman, whose second collection, No Good for Digging, cements him as a genuine success story. He’s a poet, a painter, and a one of the best people I know in the world. Check out this book, as it’s pretty great from start to finish.