Outside Recommendations Short Stories

Short Story Highlight of the Week 6/21/20

Every week, I attempt to highlight a new short story. I usually attempt to bring attention to a short story that is new, rather than merely “new to me.” I also (generally) attempt to highlight short stories from emerging rather than established authors. This week I’m going slightly off-script, in choosing “Waste” by the venerable Christopher Coake. “Waste” was published in April 2019 by Booth. It seems a valid time to consider this work, which will be included in Coake’s forthcoming short story collection You Would Have Told Me Not To, out in hard cover July 28, 2020.

“Waste” is the most visceral representation of difficult blue-collar work I have ever read. It’s not just the work; it’s the atmosphere of the work. I grew up working class, and in what feels like a different lifetime I used to work the type of jobs described in “Waste.” The characters in “Waste” often felt like the stirrings of past-dreams. Of course, I was working these jobs in the summers between high school and college. Let me be the first to admit it’s one thing to work such crushing jobs for a spell, knowing you have a way out. The characters in Waste have no such exit strategy. They are stuck.

The reader of “Waste” both disdains the characters’ prejudices and flaws, but also perhaps wishes to grade on a curve, to bestow some of the “grace” that these characters themselves lack.

I’m reminded of the line in “Dundun,” from Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son,” “Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.”

The central conflict of “Waste” is whether or not the putative protagonist is the biological father of a newcomer to the work crew. The first-person narration addresses concerns of the past; of apple trees making apples and of past-decisions rippling throughout a life until one is nearly drowned.

Coake writes, “I wish I could tell you life is fairer than this. But I know better. I don’t believe in Harvey’s god of love and light—not even for a second—but I do believe in luck. Specifically, I believe in bad luck, and I know for damn sure I possess more than a normal share. Every man in this truck would say the same. Even Jimmy, the kid from Reno who looks like me. And every man in this truck would also tell you, based on hard experience, that bad luck gets passed on in the fucking genes.

Themes of class, regret, and self-defeating patterns pervade a short story that flows quickly toward danger, in the sort of “frog boiling in the pot,” sort of slow-dread found in the best of Poe or even popular films such as Jaws.

The protagonist is mendacious, lazy, addicted, prejudiced, and on the whole, a horrible human. Somehow, Coake acknowledges all of this and still gets you invested in the story.

It’s a great tale of a bad person in a horrible situation. I strongly recommend you check it out if you would like to read literary fiction that breaks the mold.