Reviewed by John Mauk
By George Dila
One Wet Shoe Publishing
2014, ISBN: 978-0-9896-71-2-4
Anyone who’s ever been promoted knows the ugly truth about work: advancing through the ranks means saying yes to some rotten stuff—stuff that will get other people demoted, bamboozled, fired, hurt, or killed. Of course, colleges won’t teach this, but professional success often requires treachery. As George Dila’s new collection shows, good workers get beyond moral quandaries. They survive. They say yes—eventually or right away—to whatever orders roll down from the top.
The characters in Working Stiffs don’t openly embrace the company’s mean-spirited, oppressive, or murderous policies. They get talked or lulled into them. Out of exhaustion, fear, or basic survivalism, they accept their superiors’ language and logic—however it comes. In “Eyes to Wonder, Tongues to Praise,” the narrator, Baker, learns that he’s bound for a promotion but only because his buddy is getting canned. Baker has to keep it secret, and it eats him up. He’s riddled with anxiety, but he manages the discomfort and accepts his own complicity. In fact, he’s even surprised at how well he staves off his buddy’s suspicion: “I’m lying fluidly now, seamlessly,” he tells us. And as the story climaxes, we learn just how complicit he becomes.
In “90 Million,” the narrator, Howard, has a loyalty problem. His almost-former boss, Martin Harpoonian, has sold the company to new investors but can’t quite let it go. Things get complicated when Harpoonian locks himself in his office and refuses to hand over power. Howard becomes the go-between. The new owners call him persistently—in hopes that he might lure Harpoonian out. They make promises:
“We’re going to need good people, Howard. Folks who know the business. People we can rely on.” “Help us out, Howard.” We’d be grateful. You understand.”
And so Howard has a problem. Will he help to usher in the future? Will he help his boss of many years to retire gracefully? The answer comes after days (pages) of rich tension.
Lest we think that workplace dilemmas are the province of modern offices, Dila hurls us back to Old Testament times in “Shaft Men.” The workers are grunts in Joshua’s army. They complain a little but eventually get with the program: kicking away the bodies of their fellow soldiers and gutting the Canaanites when it’s time. The narrator, Stephen, isn’t bothered by the ethics of war. The problem for him isn’t existential or ethical; it’s simply how to get beyond tedium:
The next morning we form up and march around Jericho again. Our feet thud, we sing, the horns blare. We return to camp. Do not question authority, Jeb tells us. There is a plan.
The next day we march around the city again, and the next day, and the next, and the next. The spring is gone from our step, the gusto from our voices. Shem asks, How many officers does it take to lead an ass? I cannot repeat his answer.
These stories are not simply about work and its quotidian nastiness. They’re about the needling questions beneath it all. They’re about our own participation in awful pissing contests and forms of domination. And what’s most interesting, and most terrifying, is that the narrators are self-aware. Whether killing a huddled family of Canaanites or accepting a promotion to middle management, these guys all understand what they’re supporting.
Working Stiffs is not Dila’s literary debut. His first full-length collection, Nothing More to Tell (Mayapple Press, 2011), was plenty celebrated. Dila has a steady hand, a superior eye for narrative tension, and an undeniable rhythm. His scenes cruise along like old-time films: with controlled grace and perfect crescendos. The plots are leak-proof. The occupational entanglements are rotten and real, and the narrators lie only to themselves. In short, it’s great fiction. Granted, it’s a chapbook—with only three brief stories—but it’s a thoroughly dark (and darkly funny) study of workplace carnage. And beyond its artistic prowess, Dila’s little gem will make you want to quit your job and be better off for it.
About the reviewer: John Mauk has a PhD in rhetoric from Bowling Green State University and a Masters degree in language and literature from the University of Toledo. He writes and works at the intersection of rhetoric and fiction. He is a college professor and an avid student of philosophy. He currently teaches in the English department at Miami University of Ohio. His story collection, Fieldnotes for the Earthbound (Black Lawrence Press), will be available in August. Visit his website here: http://johnmauk.com/