Reviewed: Empty Pockets: New and Selected Stories
by Dale Herd
Coffee House Press, 2015
When an advanced copy of Empty Pockets: New and Selected Stories by Dale Herd arrived in my inbox at 11:00 pm a few weeks ago, I scanned the table of contents with the notion of reading one or two stories before going to bed. I figured the writing would be impressive, but pretentious and boring enough to lull me to sleep. Two hours later, I was still reading and I haven’t stopped.
Empty Pockets, is Dale Herd’s fourth collection stories, but it is his first offering in over thirty years. Previously published stories, sixty-four in all, from Herd’s first three collections: Early Morning Wind (1972), Diamonds (1976), and Wild Cherries (1980) are included in the book along with twenty-three new pieces.
Never heard of Dale Herd? Well neither had I before reading Empty Pockets. Certainly he has gained fans over the years. He has been compared to Hemingway more than once and one article I read claimed he was Allen Ginsberg’s favorite prose writer. Despite the praise and a forty plus year writing career, Herd remains largely unknown. While I am sorry that he hasn’t enjoyed the critical acclaim and fame that he deserves, I cant deny that Herd’s anonymity has made discovering Empty Pockets even more special, like finding the next great band and hearing them play in a hole the wall bar instead of a sold out arena.
Most of the collection is flash fiction and Herd uses the form impeccably, but there are beautiful exceptions, longer, meandering tales spanning years and lifetimes. Always, Herd’s writing swings playfully between these extremes. Just when you think you have him figured out he changes gears entirely. The wide range of structures, voices and points of view with the collection make it hard to categorize. One story “Immaculate Conception” contains only forty words, but later, in what appears to be a response to critics who try to pigeonhole him as a minimalist, Herd gives us “Lucy in the Sky,” a drug fuelled frenzy of a story in which the first sentence alone contains close to five hundred words.
In The Normal Girl, Herd steps inside the mind of a young woman married to an artist. While the story follows Gwen, from the beginning to the end of her marriage, one can’t help but view the story as a portrait of both of the doomed lovers and as such, an exploration of traditional marriage and its failings. Gwen resents and rejects her husband’s artistic dreams in favor of the normal life she has been raised to covet, but instead of coming off as a caricature of pre-feminist values, Gwen’s character is laced with nuance and complexity. In the final lines of the story, Herd writes of his heroine:
“She took the coat from him, looking at his face, somehow looking at exactly what his face presented, capturing not his gestures or how he seemed to be, but exactly those few lines coming out from the corner of his eyes, lines she had never seen before, age lines, he had actually aged, she had never noticed it before.”
Lines like this, found throughout the collection, showcase Herd’s ability to ponder moments of realization and epiphany without projecting a heavy-handed moral outcome on his characters.
Empty Pockets, the title story and perhaps the strongest in the collection, is one of three stories about Michael, a young man growing up in the rural south sometime after the Vietnam War. Empty Pockets follows Michael as he sets out on the back roads of the rural south at first hitchhiking and then travelling on foot and bicycle from Alabama to Arkansas. The reason for Michael’s journey and the details of his life before the trip are never revealed, a conscious decision on Herd’s part and one that gives Michael’s odyssey a dreamlike quality. Largely without reflection, Herd presents Michael’s interactions with a host of characters, experiences that no doubt color his perceptions of the modern world– from homosexuality, to war, to poverty to racism. Interspersed among the somewhat horrific account of Michael’s journey are moments of beauty and compassion, like these lines in which Michael finds refuge from the brutal heat from a black woman and her children.
“Momma came out with a large blue glass, handing it to Michael, the glass very cold to the touch, of a fluted, translucent, deep aqua-blue, as large as a milkshake container, holding, as he lifted it to his mouth and drank the coldest cleanest, most pure water he had ever tasted.”
Collectively, Empty Pockets reveals a kaleidoscope of American experiences. Herd seems most interested in contemplating the intersections of life, the endings, the decisions, and the chance encounters that take our lives in one direction or another. But refreshingly, Herd doesn’t presume a moral outcome or spoon-feed readers a resolution the way most writers do. Rather his stories begin and end in the midst of action or inaction, without commentary or hindsight, leaving us to decide for ourselves the meaning of it all.
Kelly Harwood is an artist and writer living in Boise, Idaho. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine arts in January of 2015. Her work has appeared in the Writers in the Attic Detour Anthology, Assay,: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and the forthcoming issue of Quaint Magazine. In her free time, Kelly enjoys interviewing writers and drawing them as cats for her blog The Rosie Pages.