Men and Women of Letters

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Mary McGuire

Men and Women of Letters:
An Anthology of Short Stories by Letter Carriers
Edited by John Yewell
Distributed by Singlejack Books, Miles and Weir, Ltd.,
Box 1906, San Pedro, CA 90733, $8.95.

IN THE INTRODUCTION to Men and Women of Letters, editor John Yewell writes that “The general public has a very precious, quaint notion of the dedicated, selfless ‘mailman’ braving the elements to see that the mail goes through. Much of that impression is deserved, but the fact remains that carriers, just as other blue-collar workers, are not expected to display any intellectual or creative prowess. The public’s expectations become the public’s stereotype” (x).

This collection of sixteen short stories, written by eleven current or retired letter carriers, is offered as evidence that the abilities, ambitions and interests of workers cannot necessarily be contained within or reduced to the jobs they do. As the first volume of a proposed series, “Writers Who Work,” this anthology is a significant rejoinder to these who would insist that writers and workers, like oil and water, do not mix.

Readers familiar with the publications of such presses as Singlejack Books will know that there exists a small but growing contemporary body of literature written by workers about their work and lives. Men and Women of Letters includes only six stories that deal in any degree with the postal service, and these vary widely in the extent to which postal work figures into characterization, plot or structure. Obviously intending to refute the notion that workers can write only about that which they presumably know best, the stories gathered in this collection represent a wide range of approaches to writing fiction, with considerable variation in content and style.

Other than their sex, a subject to which I will return, the writers included in this volume share only the fact that they were members of the National Association of Letter Carriers at the time they submitted their stories. While many of the men are “lifers” who have spent, or will spend, their working careers in the postal service, others are relatively new hires who entered the service quite late in their work life. Among these are a few who appear to have established themselves as writers prior to becoming postal employees. And a look at their biographies show that six of the eleven authors had been previously published, ranging from stories in newspapers and magazines to literary publications and novels.

Writers As Workers

In fact, what this anthology has done is emphasize the existence of writers among postal workers. This may appear to be an excessively fine distinction to draw, but I believe it is an important one. It is certainly the motivating concern of the editor. As he notes in his introduction, Yewell and his committee of readers with “literary backgrounds” (ix) sought out the best and most talented writers among letter carriers with the aim of raising both the public perception and self-esteem of the craft.

In an interview, Yewell stressed: “I was never interested in publishing another book about work … .I believe that’s just an excuse for mediocre writing. I wanted to go beyond that to a higher artistic realm that would pay off in genuine psychological benefits while simultaneously reform in the public’s image of organized labor.”

While I strongly disagree with Yewell’s readiness to dismiss writing about work as mediocre literature—and certainly several of the stories in this collection contradict his assessment—his comment illuminates a critical point. It is important that in the process of breaking down boundaries between writers and workers we do not create new distinctions between “writers who work” and “workers who write.” If there appears to be some tendency to do this on Yewell’s part, I would add that Men and Women of Letters is significant precisely for avoiding that pitfall.

Included here are some solid, well-crafted tales dealing with subject matters as diverse as Vietnam, personal relationships, chance meetings and life crises. One favorite, Raymond Abney’s “Saved by Sin,” describes the near-drowning of ten-year-old Harry. It is Abney’s direct and understated style that makes this story believable and his masterful characterization of Harry that makes it compelling but never melodramatic.

It is entirely through the child’s eyes that we understand the enormity of his situation as he goes from anger to despair to calm calculation. When his prayers to God go unheeded, Harry reasonably turns to the devil for assistance and, coincidentally, discovers a way out of his predicament. Safe at home, he is suddenly overcome by the full import of his pact with the devil but philosophically resigns himself to the new turn his life has taken:

“Whatever deal he had made with the devil was better than death. He thought of the feel and the smell of the cold, heavy water in his nose and throat, and his chest ached against and he felt himself stiffen all over. Whatever the devil came and asked him to do would be better than lying cold and dead at the bottom of the dark, murky pit (59).

“The Killing of Train-Man Brown,” by Will Bevis, is a true gem. This is the story of a Black man who lived for working the mail and who died when they eliminated the mail trains he had loved and worked on. We all know workers whose jobs are their very existence, but Walker Brown’s story is both more poignant and pointed.

Walker’s father had been a train-man too. He’d often taken Walker along to Columbia and Raleigh, and even on up to Pittsburgh and beyond. Said his father told him, ‘Walker, ain’t no racism in a moving train. It’s men working together to get a job done and done right’” (29).

In the character of Train-Man Brown, “so black he was lost in the deep morning shadows of the porch” (27), Bevis has created a simple and moving portrait of men and work and race.

Not all of these works are consistent or well-developed, but most exhibit originality and an ability to create characters and/or plots that keep the reader interested. In several there is tremendous potential, moments of real brilliance that stand out in spite of certain weaknesses. Two stories by Gene O’Neill are psychological studies that display a deft handling of characters, moods and personal interactions but that are flawed by fantastic endings that reduce their impact.

“Transfer,” by Frank Ware, does a fine job of turning the simple act of waiting for a bus into an opportunity for observing the interactions of perfect strangers, but he muddles the story midway by dropping one character and picking up a second who is never as well-integrated into the overall structure of the work.

One of Frank Criscenti’s selections, “By the Numbers,” is close to perfect. He begins with an extraordinarily vivid description of the poor neighborhood populated by “Mexicans, Central Americans, Vietnamese, a few black people, a few white people, and the old residences” (103) in which his main character delivers mail. In a few short paragraphs. Criscenli’s spare but evocative passages create a neighborhood, an atmosphere and a way of life where poverty and cultures meet.

The plot is ingenious and entirely credible, involving an elderly woman who is discovered by the letter carrier to be living in a condemned house. In spite of himself, the carrier is drawn to the woman, to the tiny garden she has scratched in the barren ground, to the home she has created among the refuse and ruin. The belligerence with which he confronts her for trespassing backed by the full authority of his “official, government-issue evil eye” (105), dissipates in the face other indifference. He shares tea with her, and that is when he notices the tattooed numbers on her wrist.

It is this point, when the author makes a story by turning the woman into a former concentration camp inmate that the work loses some of its coherence and force. With Criscenti’s aptitude for turning the mundane into a compelling portrait, it would have been more consistent to have made the woman a victim of the urban ghetto in which he finds her. The resilience that he portrays so beautifully could be that of a Vietnamese refugee, an undocumented Mexican migrant worker, a woman who has spent her life for others only to be forgotten. In spite of this minor defect, this story remains one of the strongest in the collection.

There are many other works in this anthology deserving of mention, but it is impossible to treat each individually. However, particular mention must be made of one story that has the distinction of being both the shortest and the most powerful contribution. “The Enemy Within,” by LW. Peterson is a two-page tour de force that takes place within the tortured madness of a Vietnam vet’s mind. In his confused sense of reality, the streets of his mail route become the jungles of Vietnam and his patrons become the enemy. Peterson’s terse style is perfect for creating and maintaining the tension of his plot. This is one short “story” that cannot be readily forgotten.

Why No Women?

A major disappointment in this collection is that no women are to be found among the authors. Though Yewell expresses regret at this circumstance, he insists that no one group could be targeted for special consideration. He points out the dominance of men in the carrier craft as the reason for fewer contributions by women. Nonetheless, it strikes me as curious that although one-fifth of the 120 submissions were by women, none were considered worthy of inclusion.

Certainly several of the lesser works in the anthology raise doubts in my mind that all of the women’s work could have been significantly worse. There is, for example, one story by F.N. Wright, a published novelist, which is nothing more than a shabby and uninteresting imitation of the Beats’ mad stories of sex, chicks, booze and fast cars. A second story by Frank Ware has little new to say about hippies and cops, dope, small-town jails and jail inmate rape. Both stories, by writers who have more creditable works in the collection, could have been eliminated.

Could it be that a panel of five men might have presented an unconscious obstacle? Yewell points out that every effort was made to be scrupulously fair—he even submitted one of his own stories anonymously and was rejected—and I do not disbelieve his claim. I would suggest, however, that “talent” is a subjective and elusive concept that may well be open to unintentional biases.

While women and minorities continue to be under-presented in the arts, it seems important to make a few minor concessions. Two simple suggestions for the next volume would insure that a variety of cultural journal and literary perspectives, be more representative of the diversity of writers within the letter-carrier craft, will be given a hearing. First, create a multiracial review panel that includes women; second, have all manuscripts viewed anonymously.

That being said, Men and Women of Letters remains an important and original effort. If artificial and disabling distinctions between those who produce creative or intellectual works and those who produce goods and services are ever to be eliminated, it will come through efforts like this one. It is to the credit of Yewell, his associates and supporters within and outside of the ranks of the letter carriers and their union, The National Association of Letter Carriers, that this independently published anthology both includes and transcends the postal-work experiences of the writer-workers included here. The single greatest contribution of this book lies in the deliberation with which the line between writer and worker is blurred.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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