In preparation for reviewing, Dustin M. Hoffman’s No Good for Digging, I spent three years taking every class he offered at Winthrop University. So, I have been taking notes on what he considers important enough to teach a fiction student. Naturally, you can’t judge a writer by how well they teach or a teacher by how well they write, but I believe Hoffman practices what he preaches.
During a workshop, I was once told by another student that I hadn’t established my narrator, a cashier at a grocery store, as being eloquent enough to come up with some of the metaphors used in the story. I asked Hoffman about it later, and he said that once he was told to show a construction worker reading a history book so that the reader knew he was more than just some blue collar shlub and that I should never follow that kind of advice. I’ve never taken a class with Hoffman where he didn’t dedicate at least a day to the literature of the working class and talked about how in the decade he spent painting houses he met hard and calloused poets digging ditches and laying bricks. He gives these blue collar voices a chance to show their eloquence in No Good for Digging, especially in stories such as “Pitch”:
You didn’t worry about bodies because this was innocent love, and how joyous your lungs will feel when absorbing a perfectly controlled climate, the fullest breaths you’ve ever taken, whereas your breaths now are stifled half-inhales, muffled gasps.
I’ve spent many hours in Hoffman’s office with him pointing to full pages out of my short stories, asking Do you really need this? He forces students to put every word on trial for its life. This value is trumpeted throughout No Good For Digging, a collection of the short and strange. Hoffman steals moments out of time and brands the pages with them. I look at Hoffman’s collection of flash and micro fiction as the culmination of his status as a short story writer where he breaks his stories’ legs and teaches them to dance. These stories may at first look stumpy, too short to develop into full stories, to give the characters flesh and blood, to give us something to latch onto and love, but once his chorus of construction workers strike up the tragedy of trapped birds in the wall of a new home, we feel the concentrated care and artistry. A novelist cares about their hundred pages as much as Hoffman cares about his hundred words:
This new home would be forever haunted by hollow bones and black feathers. We blamed the drywallers and they blamed the framers and they blamed the landscapers. But we all carried hammers.
Hoffman always teaches writers like Bonnie Jo Campbell and Donald Ray Pollock while citing writing advice from Raymond Carver during fiction workshops. As a teacher, he points toward the dirty realists, and as a writer he aims to be counted among them. For a student who is asked to read Victorian tomes about the landlords and factory owners, these writers open literature up. They show neglected narratives as Hoffman does in No Good for Digging. Women on factory lines, plumbers caught under crumbling earth, line cooks with four jobs and weekend custody, Hoffman writes these stories about people trying to scrape by in a modern America with beautiful prose and careful plotting, because he knows that these people deserve to be counted and immortalized in literature.
Although he considers himself a dirty realist, Hoffman suspends hard realism in favor of bending these stories towards magical realism, while still keeping the grit of his dirty realist roots. “Ouija Board Inspector” highlights the crossing of the departure from realism and the grounding in dirty reality. Focusing on a factory where the talking boards are made, our heroes are the women of the assembly line, “the true heart behind the production, the ink renderers, wood finishers, lacquer perfectionists” who are pit against the man at the end of the line, Wallace, who “claimed only he could unleash the everlasting entanglement.” While Wallace backs up production with his rituals, the women bear the pain of missed quotas. The women’s bitterness is compounded by Wallace making ten times their hourly wage. A fine mixture of spiritualism and realism comes together to close out this story.
In a book of firefighters lost for a purpose, assistants buried alive, sons left to rot by fathers, wives left unloved by husbands, children troubled by tuna, and a wandering nation lost in a desert, closing on the microfiction “Bruise Room” is the only true ending.
“Bruise Room” was one of my first encounters with Hoffman’s writing. After my first class with him in my freshman year, a friend sent it to me. During his classes, Hoffman often goes off on the perfection found in the shortest forms of fiction, and I didn’t agree. Raised on novels, I thought the best way to write was the longest way, but after reading “Bruise Room,” a story no more than fifty words long, I understood the beauty Hoffman saw in the shortest forms. I could try to explain it, but I know that I don’t have the words, so take the last two sentences instead:
Purple doesn’t care what you did. Purple only wants to blanket you in a big, warm bruise.
Hoffman often talks about how he considers short stories to be more like poetry than novels. The writer is tasked with snatching moments out of time to crystalize and polish them into a few thousand carefully chosen words. Dustin M. Hoffman’s No Good for Digging is a collection that epitomizes this philosophy by sanding stories down to no more than a few pages that bleed with lovably unlikable characters and launch stories that have been left at the margins to the front.
No Good for Digging, by Dustin M. Hoffman. Missoula, Montana: Word West Press, December 2019. 110 pages. $12.50, paper.
Joaquin Macias was born in Sumter, South Carolina, to a surrealist and a communist. He is an aspiring writer and student of English and Theater at Winthrop University. His work has previously appeared in Crack the Spine and Riggwelter.