Unraveling the Origins of Middle America’s Misunderstood Men

In “Twenty Stories,” Jack Driscoll lends compassion to the working class men of the heartland

Silhouette of a construction worker sitting on a beam against the pale dawn
Photo by Jason Richard on Unsplash

Jack Driscoll writes about working-class men in flyover states. Men who feel left behind and misunderstood, men with calloused hands, men who take reckless risks that often hurt themselves more than others. He writes about people in isolated rural areas who go ice fishing, deadbeat dads, and combat veterans who love their mothers. He writes about ferocious weather, boys with bravado, and men who are haunted by their complicity. The kind of people who accuse politicians and the media of looking down on them. 

Driscoll writes about people we need to understand better, whether you call them rednecks or “real Americans.” And he manages to make their gritty, slangy first-person accounts sing with a lyricism that feels miraculously authentic, a diction that lends them a quiet dignity.

Driscoll has won many Pushcart Prizes, so it seems fitting that his Twenty Stories would be published by Pushcart Press. He may not be a household name, but many consider him one of the best short story writers alive. His new book includes twenty stories and spans several decades. Our need to enter into the minds and hearts of the kind of people he writes about is more urgent now than ever.

Reading these stories is a perfect antidote to our news feeds. He shows so much compassion for his characters, no matter what side of the divide they’re on. 

Full disclosure: I studied with Driscoll in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University, and my daughter graduated from the famous creative writing program at Interlochen Academy, which Driscoll founded. 

His fiction brings up so many timely issues, including toxic masculinity, the mounting epidemic of “deaths of despair” among men without college degrees, and the way climate change is affecting the lives of people living way up north. 

But first I wanted to talk about kindness.

Sharon Harrigan: Some writers run their writing workshops like a “bloodbath.” (I won’t name names.) There’s this idea that you have to weed out people who are too weak. 

Jack Driscoll: I think it’s Tony Hoagland who referred to workshop as “the spectacle of maggots condescending to a corpse,” which I thought was just hilarious. But, really, he’s talking about the wrecking ball approach of many workshops. And for me, the positive propels and the negative retards.

SH: You mean comments given with kindness instead of cruelty make people better writers?

JD: Yes. And I say that because I learned so much more by my attention being directed to what I was doing well, instead of lingering in the morass of so much negativity. 

SH: Does the world need more kindness?

JD: Absolutely. I don’t know where it’s gone. But it seems to me that meanness does not heal and kindness does.

SH: And we sure need some healing. Some pundits say that maybe if we as a society hadn’t been so dismissive of this demographic, they wouldn’t have responded with so much outrage, and we wouldn’t be so divided as a country. You treat your working class characters with kindness and compassion. What is it that draws you to write about these kind of characters?

JD: Let me answer the question in a larger context first, just about writing characters per se. I quote people all the time. It’s a ritual of mine to wave back and give an acknowledgement of what I learned from reading them. One of them is Raymond Carver, and he says that the fiction that counts is about people. And it seems to me the recognition of an attempt to enter any character’s reality is in fact the fiction writer’s business. It’s what we do, and to do it convincingly is to understand what they’re thinking and feeling and why. In other words, to enter as deeply as possible into the character’s mind and heart, which is what I try to do.

SH: How do you know so much about these kinds of people? 

JD: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t be writing about them if I didn’t. If you’re going to write honestly and compassionately and convincingly about people, you better know them well.

We’ve just been talking about me as the founding father of the creative writing major at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Pretty nice. But, when I was hired in 1975, I was working as a grunt on a construction crew—my MFA tucked away, which I never once mentioned. But had I, my coworkers likely would’ve nicknamed me school marm or some such thing. Though, I assure you, in good humor, we drank beers after work, we played pool, we dropped coins in a jukebox, we laughed a lot. Good guys, sometimes rough around the edges, and I love that about them too. 

Other blue-collar jobs of mine included bailing rags in a mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and which to a large degree defined, in my growing up, this place I lived as a working class town. Stints as a busboy and dishwasher earlier on. I cut and split firewood after that. One summer I drove a Ding Dong ice cream truck.

SH: So you come by your knowledge honestly.

JD: I do. 

And when I moved to Michigan, I was not going to learn my way, to the waterways and the woods, from anybody in the academy. My guide was going to have to be somebody local, born and raised there. So I hung around with them a lot and got to know them well. 

SH: And your father owned a bar.

JD: Yeah. Well, it’s just astounding. He worked 364 days a year, 16 hours a day, believing he could leverage for his five children, and he did, a better place in the world by providing each of us a college education, something he knew next to nothing about other than mine being the first generation that was expected to go to college. And from him, I learned—though I didn’t know him very well, because he was always working—I did learn from him a certain gracefulness and maybe more importantly, a labor-intensive, hardcore work ethic that has served me well. 

SH: You write a lot about something close to my heart: absent fathers. You don’t dismiss them or look down on them. There’s the one in “Gracie and Devere,” for instance. He’s divorced and the mother has put a restraining order on him, he hasn’t paid child support, and yet he redeems himself by rescuing his twin girls. He’s a deadbeat dad, but that’s not his whole story.

It’s possible that a writer goes through an entire career writing under the momentum of one or two obsessions.

JD: We have to take people on their own terms. The way to divine fully formed characters the reader can care about is to love these characters out of all proportion, not for the trouble they let loose on the world, not for the doofuses they sometimes turn out to be, but because of those failings. And it does, I think, at least in the story “Gracie and Devere,” help to define this father who has been labeled almost entirely in negative ways.

It’s possible that a writer goes through an entire career writing under the momentum of one or two obsessions. That’s just a theory, but certainly it holds true for me. I came to understand this by reading reviews of my own work.

SH: Another theme is boys and men who need to prove their toughness. For instance, in the story “Wanting Only To Be Heard,” a boy claims that if Houdini can do something, they should try to do it. There’s also a nude calendar in an ice fishing shanty that plays a big role in the boys’ imaginations, as if they’re showing off for this naked lady. This peer pressure to “man up” causes a lot of self-harm. 

I just saw the movie Women Talking by Sarah Polley, and one of the takeaways is that a world in which boys and men are expected to inflict violence is a world that’s bad for those boys and men, not just for the girls and women. Your stories also seem to address that kind of toxic masculinity.

JD: These are young kids, and I write a lot about adolescents. What the young narrator in “Wanting Only to Be Heard” experiences is an awareness of human loneliness and his being complicit in it and emptier for it. And this is the toll you want to exact on the reader, equal at least to what I felt during its composition and what this young narrator is feeling in its aftermath. And a large part of the reason these boys do this is because of the world they grow up in. It’s not a place they’ve chosen to be. It’s the only world they know, and they’re conditioned by it.

SH: The world we live in constricts and defines us. Which is why place and landscape are so important in your stories.

JD: Oftentimes, these are hard living, hardworking, underprivileged, deprived characters. Garth Greenwell says, “Consciousness has to be embedded in a particular place, a particular time. And one sign of the success of a piece of writing is the extent to which I feel immersed in a physical environment.” My response to that quote would be: Right, both feet on the ground, because place isn’t merely a backdrop against which the action occurs. It’s everything. Ortega Y Gasset says, “Tell me the place in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.”

It’s not a place they’ve chosen to be.

I’ve always maintained that there’s nothing more fatiguing in this life than boredom. And boredom is what these kids have in the dead of winter in Northern Michigan, socked in by snow and cold that never ceases and isolates the towns for six months. To break the cycle, the boredom, well, these kids get ideas, as they do in “Wanting Only to Be Heard,” as you just pointed out, and in “Gracie and Devere,” the twin girls wait for their mother to go to work, and then they take off and they get themselves in trouble. Boredom is what provides for the dramatic action. One of our standing jokes about Michigan’s upper peninsula is it’s where summer is known locally as three months of lousy sledding.

In other words, try and locate my stories elsewhere and see what happens. Well, we already know. They no longer exist.

SH: But what I love is that, even though they are so specific to their place, and maybe the boredom there is an extreme example, there are so many other places where young people are bored for other reasons and drop out of school and get into trouble.

Right here in Charlottesville where I live, someone was quoted in my local paper today saying, “These young men are picking up guns because they have nothing else to do with their time.”

JD: Exactly. And the other thing about place is that these boys are too young to leave. So they’re acting out in ways they do to make them feel important, feel larger, feel even legendary. There’s that explicit tension that’s created by what the place provides and what it can’t possibly give. There’s a whole body of literature that speaks precisely to this tension to stay or leap the fence and light out elsewhere. We see it in the characters of James Baldwin, for example, or the ending words of John Updike’s classic Rabbit, Run, the first of the trilogy. And I probably have this a little bit wrong, but it’s something like, “Ah, run, run.”

So all of these things are at work simultaneously. My theory is that the more local it becomes, the better you can orient your reader to this particular place in time, the more universal it becomes.

SH: As writers, we’re now supposed to do our own promotion, so we have to be online. But you’re not on social media at all. I wish I had the courage to pull out. I really admire that.

JD: Well, I think you’re in a real minority on this one. But you are right I have no interest in or aptitude for technology, and it’s a difficult place to find oneself. It hasn’t been easy.

But, here’s what I remember, and it’s stuck with me: years and years ago, I remember reading about a Microsoft researcher who coined the phrase, “Continuous partial attention.” And if this doesn’t stand anathema to the level of intense focus and concentration that defines this writing life we serve, then nothing does. As people have said to me, mostly the younger generation, but not entirely, whenever they see me confounded by my inability to do anything on the computer, “Welcome to the new world.” But it never felt welcoming to me, and it still doesn’t. And mostly, it just feels like distraction, the media circus of self-promotion and how our attention is redirected to so much that matters not at all, or at least not to me.

And so, no, I stand with Miloš who says about writing, “When we go into ourselves, it’s a secret quiet thing that we do.” And technology seems to come head first into a collision with me on that front. And in other words, my feeling has always been, if you’re going to be secret and quiet and fully concentrated in this way, and unambitious for the spotlight, for the wine and cheese, but rather for the work itself, then the rest, I’m pretty sure, will take care of itself.

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