Empty Pockets

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Dale Herd has been writing short stories since the 1970s, mostly terse, tough slices-of-life about people living at the edges of society. Now Coffee House Press has published a definitive collection of his work, EMPTY POCKETS (ppbk original, 228 pages, $15.95).
Nineteen new stories by Herd join the sixty-four selected picks, making for a fictional world that is uniquely his. Some of his stories are less than a page in length; others are monologues by unnamed characters (mostly working-class and in desperate economic straits); still others follow more traditional forms. A case in point is Empty Pockets, the titular story in the collection; in it a youngster named Michael is hitching his way through the Gulf coast in summer, trying to get to Meridian, Mississippi with only thirteen dollars to his name. After fighting off the sexual advances of the three different “homos” who offer him lifts, he decides to spend five bucks in a pawn shop for a broken-down bicycle which he hopes will carry him to his destination. Not only does the bike let him down but life itself: the heat is horrific, the mosquitoes and snakes poisonous, and just about everyone he meets along the way is hostile, racist and despicable. The only decent folks he encounters are black: a bunch of dirt-poor women and their young children. They give him water and a place to rest his ailing body; he gives them the bike in return.
Then he must start hoofing it again in the “strength-sapping heat and sunlight” with the cicadas screeching on all sides. Finally a “middle-aged white guy with a truck driver’s belly and red sideburns” picks him up in his blue and white Colonial Bread van. When a car driven by two blacks overtakes him, the white guy flies into a rage, screaming, “that’s what that fuckin’ cocksucker John Kennedy ‘n’ his brother Bobby did to this country. Lettin’ all them nigras think they can run everybody, them cocksuckers are takin’ over everything!”

photo: Sophie Calle

The white guy keeps fulminating all the way to Meridian, “spilling most of the bread off the side shelves in the process, in between offering Michael drinks of J.T. Brown from a glass bottle.

“The best damn bourbon,” he said, “in the whole goddamn United States of America.”