Send Me Work by Katherine Karlin

Send Me Work: Stories BY Katherine Karlin. Triquarterly. Paperback, 170 pages. $17.
The cover of Send Me Work: Stories

Destiny, the 18-year-old protagonist of “Muscle Memory,” one of Katherine Karlin’s best stories, is determined to become a welder. With her family’s stability demolished by Hurricane Katrina, Destiny has taken the lowest paying job in the shipyard, overseeing equipment sign-out to help support herself and her mother. “You’re not going to learn anything stuck down here,” a co-worker warns her, a fact that Destiny is acutely aware of. If the workplace is where most of us size up our place in the world, Destiny is in search of something at once humble and utterly life-changing: a skill. Whether it’s the pride of knowing how to wield a blowtorch or the aimlessness that comes from feeling not particularly good at anything, for the people of Send Me Work, one’s labor carries a moral charge. Such is the power of work, and the unique imprint it leaves on our lives. As David Gates noted in the introduction to Labor Days, a 2004 anthology of short fiction on the subject, “The workplace is the everyday equivalent of Homer’s battlefield and Shakespeare’s court.” It exposes us.

Karlin’s debut collection pulls together eleven previously published stories, including the 2007 Pushcart-winner “Bye-Bye, Larry,” which revolves around the rowdy wake of a company man. Though the backdrops vary from Miami to New York to Pittsburgh and New Orleans, from oil refineries and shipyards to print shops and rail yards, the setting, in many ways, remains the same. Even white-collar characters occupy a world invisible to many. “Once at a party she told a woman that she worked in a print shop on Vesey,” Karlin writes in “Stand up, Scout,” the story of a customer-service rep who attempts to reconnect with her family. “And the woman said, without irony, ‘I didn’t know those places still existed.’” But, just like the one adman thrown into the mix, a woman with a phone and a desk and a pair of high heels is the anomaly here. Instead, most sport scars on their forearms and broad shoulders and nicknames like “Little Shit.”

A strong current of death and loss runs through the book. Suicide, AIDS, natural disasters, natural causes, and even a nocturnal ice cream truck with questionable frozen treats make cameo appearances. Characters make their peace with the accompanying fear, sadness and confusion, as in “Seven Reasons,” where a rail yard employee catalogues the means and motivations for killing herself as she goes about her daily grind. Discipline, that’s one way to stay alive, she figures. “The engineer is not supposed to brake,” explains the narrator. “Everyone knows that. Even though the instinct kicks in hard and human, it’s an instinct he has to override. He can’t stop the train in time, and he runs the risk of a derailment: ninety cars packed with liquefied petroleum gas, tumbling off the track like toys. It takes a lot of training and experience and presence of mind, but once a jumper is in his sights, the engineer’s best choice is to comply with his wishes.”

Often, Karlin makes subtle use of what hasn’t been said out loud, or won’t be acknowledged. September 11th becomes “the attacks,” while in the title story, the dawning AIDS crisis goes nameless as Harriet, a woman who can’t seem to hold on to a boyfriend or a job, loses her best friend to the disease. In “Geography,” a refinery crew discovers a crude leak that appears to be tainting the local water supply. Despite being informed that it doesn’t officially exist, the crew pushes for answers. As they do, our narrator, warned of the almighty power of the corporation, is advised to cover her ass or just plain make a run for it. Outside, unabated, the formless stain in the mud grows, coughing up hints of what all it has swallowed.

Before entering academia, Karlin, now an English professor at Kansas State, pulled the shifts she writes about here, which explains these stories’ comfort with check valves and flare stacks. But Karlin doesn’t linger reverently, a la John Sayles, on the mechanics of, say, coupling a railroad car. Likewise, while beaten-down blue collars and disenchanted cubicle dwellers fill much fiction about work, Karlin doesn’t make either her focus. Instead, she has a gift for deftly exploring the contours of a rough but collegial world. What intimacy her narrators experience is fleeting: complicated, unconventional, but also inevitable, and we become as captivated by them as they are by the puzzle of other people.

Occasionally, the intimacy feels forced. When characters don’t connect, as in “Into the Blue Again,” in which a Southern California aerobics instructor heads off to Nicaragua to pick coffee for the Sandinistas, Karlin’s work is at its weakest. When interpersonal negotiations lack depth, her stories become collections of overly meaningful encounters, overt politics and sharp details that don’t coalesce into characters. She sometimes works too hard to convey meaning, so that a scene from the film of “To Kill a Mockingbird” underscores an already obvious point about how a parent’s skewed perspective rubs off on a child; or a woman’s predilection for vintage clothes and black-and-white movies becomes an overwritten metaphor for her inability to let go of the past.

At her best, Karlin has a perfectly attuned ear for dialogue, and an ability to sketch characters through pithy details, scattered gently throughout: the man whose “closest thing” to a hobby is Ann-Margaret, the woman whose heart skips “like a lover’s” when she finds herself on the doorstep of her dying mentor. Karlin’s language is sensual without being sumptuous, economical without being sparse. There is a physicality to the small details of these stories, a focus on the muscular curves of an ocean wave, or Destiny searching her drowned father’s welding mask for the salt streaks from his sweat, hoping for one small part of him that maybe hadn’t been washed away.

In the end, this collection attempts no grand thesis on the American way of work. But with her careful accumulation of precise observations, Karlin has created some potent yet understated glimpses of a few Americans, working, trying for a little dignity.

Mindy Farabee is a critic and writer living in Los Angeles.