We first heard of/read Greg Mulcahy in a late 1980s issue of The Quarterly that contained his novella “Glass.” Now, only Gordon Lish would devote 100 pages, about half the issue, to an unknown writer. That was the sort of thing ol’ Gordo did (as he did with Raymond Carver and others).
Out of Work was published with little hoopla in August, 1993 (when a big publisher issues a title in the summer, they are pretty much burying it and relegating it to catalog filler). It contains “Glass” and 16 short short stories that appeared in The Quarterly, Caliban, and Mississippi Mud — all with the telltale Lish-edit hand: stories are 2-3 pages, minimal, full of short sentences and the language of the 1980s glammer lit.
The Los Angeles Times said of the book:
[Greg Mulcahy] is portraying more than an economic pinch. He is writing of a deeper disintegrating panic. His protagonist is not just hard up. He is an exile. He is excluded from the bright world of brands and choices, from America as it advertises itself to itself. He will finally nerve himself to join the club. It is a grim warehouse in the factory district, surrounded by rubble and protected by razor wire. To join he must work there 10 hours a week. He is no longer a shopper; he is a serf.
He is also, as the grizzling about vermicelli suggests, infantilized. And that and the serfdom are the point, time and again, in Mulcahy’s brief vignettes, some only two or three pages long. The author is writing about a society whose masters have curtailed their people’s vitality, decency and sense by stuffing them with goods and promises. When these are withdrawn after the boom times run out, only the curtailment remains, and a mortgaged future.
This intensifies the bleakness of the new times that Mulcahy is parableizing, but it is also a limitation. With a surface realism that is skewed in ways that suggest Kafka sometimes, and sometimes Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover, Mulcahy gives us the latest news. Like news, many of the pieces have a cramped sameness.
Let’s look at some of these bleak opening sentences. From the first story, “$$$$,” we get:
A message on the door. He knew about those. Throughout history, famous messages recorded for all to see. This, what was this? A bit of green paper rolled scroll-like and jammed beneath the crooked handle of the storm door. Message — more flier really. Not targeted to anyone really. Targeted to a class –say, people who ordered pizza, or home psychotherapy, or needed their gutters cleaned.
Save 80% Off Retail (p. 3)
From “The History of Amnesia”:
At work, I work with chemicals are dangerous. Known carcinogens. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I asked the shop steward about it. But he was non-committal. Hemmed and hawed, as someone said. (151)
Mulchay did, or does, have a good way with his words and sentences. Out of Work never went paperback, nor did it sell all that well. So what happened to the writer? According to his wikipedia page, he published a 1996 Ya novel, Constellation, with Avission Press.
No books after that, and stories here and there, recently in NY Tyrant and Word Riot. He is on the faculty of Minnesota State College, and we’re not sure but we think he attended Lish’s big groups seminars at Indiana University.
A story, “Account,” is online at Alice Blue Review. The style and length are similar to those in Out of Work. See:
—Hey, you’re that guy, a guy said.
In the lobby. Some kind of hanger-out and where was security or was there no security? Besides, Bill did not know what the guy was talking about. He stepped back. Sometimes he felt like he was going up in an elevator.
The guy moved away from him.
All Bill wanted was to take care of his errand. Minimal human contact would suffice. Though that maybe was new; now that everything could be done without human contact, was the hunger for isolation greater than ever before?
The Japanese were rumored to have functioning sexbots. Why would it not cross Bill’s mind?
The world being, what it was.
Pathogens being, what they were.
Not that Bill in any way shrunk from life. He was in the lobby while others—among them his acquaintances—performed their transactions via machine. So who was the live one now?
Who would be the live one later?
The sky, for example, in China. Bring that up in a minute on the screen and there you were looking at that—Chinese?—sky. Bill was not interested in denying the facts; why would he be?
The nonsense of the moment. The idiocy of the past. Well, time would lay it all to waste, would it not? And Bill. The end. The visceral fear, the cold paralysis in his bowel. The end. Bill could look forward to that. But he had to. Everyone did.
Or California. The sky there.
Sometimes he felt like he was floating on a raft. Or that he should get a picture for his wall. In the office. Get a picture and hang it up there. Others did. No policy disallowed it.
Was it pisce pisce pisce? That bird call like a foreign language. And pisce. Fish? Always some fish, Bill supposed.
He had noticed he was more sympathetic to men who shared his grandfather’s surname than to people he met generally. This seemed as though it might be common to any number of people. Why should his experience be different than anyone else’s?
When he was going up in the elevator, it felt like he was going up in an elevator.
Maybe the guy was trying to sell him something, the false recognition the basis of his pitch. Establish a relationship. Maybe the guy was trying to beg and Bill had scared him off. Transaction not completed. Where had the guy gone?
Man got all swallowed up.
Man got all disappeared.
More likely went around the corner. Find an easier mark. Maybe a victim of the cyclical debacle of the society’s willing ignorance. Which one? Or both?
Bill had his paperwork in a manila folder. No one could fault him for that. Paperwork always made him uncomfortable though really he worked with paper. Always the fear some critical piece might be lost. Less an issue now with digital storage. But a pattern established strongly enough—
Too tired to contemplate the tiresome thought.
This was no California. For better or worse. Two sides to things. Half a life in these uncomfortable, necessary errands. Better than breaking sod with a spade in his Lordship’s field.
Grip the loose sheaves tightly. Why? No complaint here. Nothing to wait in line to make his mandated election in a temperature-controlled environment.
Of course, a butcher’s shop was temperature-controlled. He had the chance to get meat at close to wholesale. The problem was he could only get it in half-animal increments. Half a cow too much to store. Half a pig no small matter. Bill knew a guy. All quality. Straight from the specialty butcher. But it was too much. Buying half a pig, while not a solution, was strangely compelling to him. The put up and store mentality of the Midwest, he assumed. Funny how deeply those notions ran in the culture and how they outlived necessity.
He’d filled out the forms to move some money immediately and all for the movement of future monies into accounts that would, if everything went right, guarantee his future.
It was simple.
He had to make a mandatory election.
It was the right thing to do.
He was fortunate, though it would be a sacrifice, to have some money and the option to put it aside.
No China this. But sometimes he thought he was nowhere. He was not from nowhere. He was from somewhere, but it seemed like now he was nowhere. He came from somewhere to be here. To be here.
Though that was not his motive.
Half a pig—sometimes he felt he was nothing but appetite. Which had its purposes.
One had to admit.
He could make his mistake. Who better than he? Better he than someone else. He would have no one to blame but himself. He had no one to blame at all.
The magic of compound interest; that was what was supposed to work for him. He would sit in meetings, and while he did, his money was to work for him and guarantee his future.
His portfolio might become the notebook of his failure. He would lose it all. They would take it all. Might as well gamble it away. Might as well burn it.
This was what he was supposed to do, he reminded himself.
Other people did it.
Why did Bill feel the others could do it—were doing it—better than him?
Why did he feel as though he was compelled to await the workings of an un-understood formula which was not a formula at all, but, rather, a projection or speculation?
Out the window the sun in the sky, the cars on the street.
Those new cars all silver and angle. Wished he had a house like that.
A house like that would enable Bill to live in the future.
Those silvery cars objects, like spoons in a drawer. Bill had seen them pictured in magazines.
Yes no one needed him and yes he served no function or maybe no identifiable function or no essential function but why was all that on his evaluation?
Bill would not believe he was the only one.
Operating within his tiny realm of choices. The bigger outcomes predetermined. A transaction was a transaction. That was all. By submitting the forms, Bill was buying something. Why this buyer’s anxiety? Why did Bill want to impress on the salesman that he was doing the right thing and have the salesman impress on him that he was doing the right thing?
The Chinese were about their transactions beneath their Chinese sky.
Outside the window like a movie.
The movies where the worries about the crises of the human spirit were still sometimes—albeit fitfully—expressed. The artificial future. The manufactured past. Football and cruise ships and the well-intentioned medium of the sometimes spirit.
You too can be a success. Seemed as though somebody was telling him that.
On television some kids in Africa or someplace wearing American cast-offs. One in a donated fan jersey. That kid a world away in the jersey of a cause unknown.
What Bill had said was important, he was told, was now irrelevant.
What did Bill care; why this appetite for approval? Appetite. Yes. Appetite and its payment. Always the price. Penance the price of appetite. Why did that seem so emotionally true when it was empirically so patently false? Maybe it was, probably, it was, just him. There was a time when the past held Bill prisoner—he was obsessed with his failures in the past—all that held him for years. One day as he sat eating his combo meal in a fast food place with the other losers, some songs from his youth came over the sound system and refreshed him with the utter banality of the period. He reentered his youth, sojourned in the world of his youth, and recognized how bitterly he had hated it.
Today, however, this—all this—was about the future. Bill’s desire for a happy future. A future he imagined somehow as outside the chain of love and habit. He knew better. Bill had been thoroughly indoctrinated in what to feel. He knew that and that there was no escape. If there were, he’d have taken it.
And he would have a different life, a life which would not have led to this or similar elections. The dream of another life the dream of another world really.
And there was no world but this.
One day he’d go see those masks at the museum.
He’d seen the ad on the bus. He’d taken the bus so he would not have to park.
A day in public.
—You could have mailed this in, the woman at the counter said. Or filed it electronically.
Bill said he knew. Pleasantly.
Bill knew he would sit in meetings for twenty years more and end, like the dunce in a fairy tale, with nothing—with not even half a pig.
Another is “Easter” on Spork.
Out of Work is another possible contender for reprinting in paperback by a bold indie press but remains, for now, a cherished forgotten book from the editorial hands of Gordon Lish and the commercial money of Random House/Knopf.