Knife pushers, diggers, painters, can pickers, snake mimes, fire chasers, thieves and ice-cream men populate the stories in Dustin M. Hoffman’s One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, his debut collection from University of Nebraska Press and the winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. The stories here feature men (and they are largely men) who live by their hands, who work in subdivisions, who build cookie-cutter houses. They are defined by their work, by toil and back-break. They live hardscrabble lives and are either aiming higher or sinking slowly down.
These men live by their fists, and the shadow of violence looms over many of the stories. “Ice-Cream Dream” features a masked gang of ice-cream men who ruthlessly defend their turf. “Sawdust and Glue” derives most of its tension from the countdown to an upcoming fight between a skinny carpenter and a huge painter called Big Dave. But these are not stories of violence for its own sake. “Sawdust and Glue” is told from the perspective of the small carpenter’s father and while the fight is the climax of the story it provides no catharsis. The father looks on as his son “turn[s] into something wild, something made of blood and guts and fire.” By the end we are left with the image of the father in the rain, thinking of all the things he was never able to give his son, how his work turned him into what he is now.
More ambitious is the title story, which is told in first-person plural from the perspective of a work crew. The story starts as a simple scene of the men digging up a huge fountain and escalates the inner-crew tension until violence erupts. But rather than settling there, Hoffman takes us past the act, into a virtuoso scene set at the emergency room where one of the workers, Tommy, waits for his friend to get patched up:
We hate that old man and his bleeding eye and his bunched-up panties who won’t stop glaring at Tommy even though his good eye probably isn’t worth a shit, all pale and milky. But Tommy forgets about him, and the old man turns as invisible as the crinkled fashion magazine under his seat, opened up to a spread on bikini season where a page has been torn away, stashed into the pants of an eleven-year-old who was waiting for its mama to get her blackened, busted-up eye sewn for the twenty-second time . . . it doesn’t mean a damn thing to Tommy. We finally fall asleep.
The story broadens, shifts, and by the end becomes a shimmering meditation on community, and how to piece together normality out of a sea of brutality. When the men come to work the next day, the specter of some new eruption of conflict lingers, then dissipates. Muscled bodies are turned to the work at hand. The fountain has to be finished. The final image of that hundred-knuckled fist is not one of violence but of coming together into a solid mass.
Many of the characters lash out due to pressure—they’re looking for raises, to make enough to support their families, or simply to hold on to the jobs they have. There is a sense of a hopelessly repeating loop. “When my back gives out, Ramon will step over my collapsed shoulders and go right on sawing and nailing,” laments the father in “Sawdust and Glue.” In “Can Pickers” the titular characters drone on about how they earned coins and “turned those coins to food, and we’ll turn these cans to coins. The money keeps on coming.” Their conditions never improve—they’ll collect cans forever. Then there are the characters who witness the loop finally run out, caught helplessly outside of it like the builders-turned-thieves in “We Ride Back” who drive around a subdivision and note the “houses like where we used to work before they stopped making families to make houses to make work.”
But it is not all gloom. Hoffman wisely injects levity into his pieces. The opening story “Pushing Knives” builds on a Buñuelian twist about a knife salesman who desperately wants to peddle his goods on supermarket customers but can’t seem to speak. The story escalates, introducing first his manager (who pops out of a tower of cereal boxes) then a rival vacuum cleaner saleswoman and then her crazed manager, all of it devolving into a lunatic food fight. “The Shepherd’s Work” follows a shepherd whose attempts to grow his flock are undermined by battling knights and a shady motivational sheep speaker. These stories reveal a playful sense of humor, and are reminiscent of the work of both George Saunders and Wells Tower.
Not all the stories in the collection connect. “Conch Tongue,” about a Jamaican tour guide who must uncomfortably deal with a couple of wealthy Americans, never rises above its most obvious elements and feels didactic. Likewise, “Pushing Knives” can sometimes be a little glaring about its economic subtext in a way that edges into moralism. But neither these missteps nor the flashes of overwriting mar the reading experience. With One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist Hoffman has fashioned a collection that does not stand on the strength of its individual stories so much as the cohesive world it creates and the lives it inhabits with such heartfelt honesty and understanding.
Publication Date: September 1, 2016
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Reviewed by Augusto Corvalan