An Overly Familiar Review of Dustin M. Hoffman's One Hundred-Knuckled Fist

I won't write a glowing review of Dustin M. Hoffman's first book, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, without talking about how well I know him and how well I knew his work before it was ever combined into the single book that you lucky suckers can purchase at the push of a button (or at a store; I don't know your life. О мой бог. Mukatsku. Whatever). Get it here; U of Nebraska Press or here: Amazon.

Dustin and I met in 2007 when we we started our MFAs at Bowling Green State University. He stood beneath the East Hall stairwell where he smoked during breaks and before class. As a rule, I hate everyone I meet initially, and then, over time, I like them more and more (it's a safer system than starting out Tabula Rasa and realizing after you've decided to trust someone that they are actually a terrible person). This rule never applied to Dustin, though; he's un-hateable. And only a few days after meeting, we were drinking beers at Beckett's, laughing and crying after workshops (just kidding; we never laughed after a workshop), smirking in disgust when people generalized about the intelligence of manual laborers, and doing our best to keep one another sane each semester when the time came for grading composition portfolios filled with essays arguing (to be generous) for the legalization of marijuana, pro or con death penalty, and (I wish I was kidding) "What's up at the Mall?" 

 We both graduated on time, and, because we had no self-respect or self-confidence, we applied for more regular floggings from creative writing workshop peers and instructors. Right after graduating from BGSU, Dustin and I donned crowns woven out of daisies and skipped, hand in hand, to Western Michigan University where we set forth on the most boring quest imaginable: the quest for a Ph.D. It was boring but pretty informative most of the time. So, as you can see, Dustin and I have lived and worked in close proximity for nearly all of the last ten years, pursuing the exact same degrees at the exact same institutions. There is no point in my pretending that I haven't read and offered terrible advice for most of the stories in One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist at earlier points in their existence. I even have anecdotes for a lot of them.

The opening story, "Pushing the Knives", was workshopped while we were MFA students, and on the night we tried to tear it apart in a classroom, Dustin and I talked about it as we walked home smothered in the sickly yellow glow of Bowling Green's street lamps. [Spoiler alert(s aren't things that I believe matter with real literature)] I told him that I thought it might be better if the protagonist didn't cut his actual heart out of his chest when, in fact, the character had actually snipped a heart shape from a cut of meat. Dustin and I weren't as close back then, so perhaps that's why he didn't correct me, and maybe he's forgotten all about my misreading, but I remember and give myself a regular psychological beating to ensure I read my friends' work more closely and avoid this kind of public shaming (that I just did, prompted to do so by no one other than my self). While still in the MFA "Pushing the Knives" was published in Black Warrior Review, and in order to offer a meaningful congratulatory gesture, I bought him and Carrie (his wife) a Santoku knife; it was super apt, way more apt than most gifts I'd ever given. They've moved twice since receiving that blade (and now that they have two children who they want to keep cut-free), and I assume it's no longer in heavy rotation at the Hoffman kitchen. But what I'm trying to make clear is that because of these extra tidbits of real life infecting my relationship with that story (and other stories in the collection have stories like this too), I know that "Pushing the Knives" isn't great to me just because the story is great.  Dustin's success with that story, and the life of that story, are literally a part of my life and a part of our friendship. Stories are personal to writers, (I think the good ones are anyway; read some of the Kindle Direct Publishing forums and you may start to wonder how true that statement is outside of the academy or the non-academy-affiliated lit world) but when you do your best to try and help someone you care about with his story, then you can be just as excited about your friend's story when it's published. Don't misunderstand me; Dustin did the work. He wrote the stories and then macheted his way through a thick jungle of advice, slashing and razing a path out of the unhelpful suggestions and squeezing each drop of jungle juice from those suggestions that seemed valuable. Dustin is (the man) responsible for the final product regardless of how many workshops and editors the stories were subjected to. But because "Pushing the Knives" was a story that I loved reading and talking about in and out of workshop, and because it was a story that inspired me to write better stories, I was excited to see that it was the first story in his collection; why wouldn't I want to read a story that I already know I love and a story that brings back memories of a time in my life when learning how to tell a story was the thing that mattered most? Yeah nostalgia colors my reading, and yes Dustin and I are friends. We both have wives and daughters. We both like Jesus' Son, have dogs, enjoy terrible puns, and beer and the free donuts we used to get from Grounds for Thought in Bowling Green when Carrie worked till closing. I could recount a billion anecdotes about things we've experienced together over the years that might prove to you that I am biased or that I'm writing a positive review of his book as a favor (which, by the way, he could get from someone far more influential than me). I don't care if that's how this review/essay is viewed though, because I didn't choose the book as the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize: Kwame Dawes picked it (along with the team of readers and editors who helped select the finalists, of course). I don't have to feel defensive about saying Dustin's book is fantastic. I get to say exactly what I think about One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist and say it as excitedly as I like. You're welcome to ignore what I say and read one of the positive reviews that will come from other sources instead, but you really ought to trust me; I do, and I know myself. I wouldn't lie to myself so why would my self lie to you?

One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist is a collection that doesn't punch you in the way you might expect. Neither sucker-punch nor haymaker, it's a blow that lands on your gut and steals the wind from your lungs without leaving you bruised (I know because I've been I've been hit that way). And you want to get hit again and again because the punches make you grow in ways you didn't know you could; that, to me, is what makes a book worth reading. Hoffman has a knack for capturing men and women who live and work behind our drywall, beneath our foundations, and within the conduit that carries our shielded twisted wire pairs and then plopping them into our living rooms where we're forced to acknowledge them and, at times, admire them for what they do and how they survive. Some of the stories are ugly, and some of the characters are unlikeable, but that's because Hoffman refuses to paint his characters and the places where they live in any light other than a light that illuminates them fully. No real person is wholly likable, and Hoffman shows us this time and again. His characters get jealous, violent, and sad because their lives are so often dependent upon the whims and desires of people who are rarely, if ever, forced to see what lurks behind their drywall and below their carpet: mice, spiders, and all the wire, pipe, and vent connections that make a house the comfortable and isolated box it can become.

The theme that runs through One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist most prominently (for me), is the desire for recognition. Character after character wants to wrap his arm around your neck, reign you in, and entertain you so that, regardless of his skin color, or the track marks his arms bare, or how attractive he is (or isn't), he doesn't become invisible as soon as the work he's been paid for is finished.  In "Sawdust and Glue" Ramon has lived a life of drugs, parties, and carpentry: all the while adhering to a code of masculinity that kills men every day. Ramon doesn't see his lifestyle as a problem, though; he sees it as the way in which a man should live. Because of that belief, he continues to live that way after his father tells him that change might be the better course. Ramon's father sees, as many fathers eventually do, that the way he's lived is not the best way to live. His attempts at talking his son into a new way of looking at things fails, unfortunately, and Ramon doesn't back down from a fight with Big Dave. Ramon knows that if he fails to fight Big Dave as he said he would, then he may as well be dead. What others think of you in the world Ramon believes in, is more important than what one thinks of himself. To someone on the outside looking in, choosing to fight against impossible odds in order to maintain one's perceived self-respect is often seen as stupidity (especially for people who've never lived in a world where one's perceived self-respect is nearly all he has to live on), but for someone living in a world where these masculine codes exist, to act in a way that doesn't adhere to your code, is a kind of death, one that might shatter your identity in a way from which many men never recover. The truth is that not everyone can escape environments they don't want to stay in (something that I want to shout at Bill Maher every time he says, "Coal miners should find a better job," as if it is that easy for every one. Not everyone can get a better job, Bill! Not everyone can afford to leave where they are.), and for those people, adhering to codes like this is a survival tactic: a sad reality that Hoffman shows us deftly in more than one of these stories. Fortunately, in addition to his ability to break our hearts and shine a light on characters many of us may never encounter outside of a book, Hoffman has a great sense of humor. Even in One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist's goriest moments, he manages to skew reality just enough so that we can safely look over a character's shoulder at what they see and see their world in the way that they actually see it. Hoffman's stories could be described as a car crash. He straps us into the back seat for the inevitable Sturm and Drang, but allows us to find the humor in how little control we have, so that when we pluck glass shards and crumpled metal slivers from our skin, we laugh until the bleeding stops, and then have a hell of a time trying to remember how we wound up sitting on the side of the road, staring at the wreckage of what resembles the car we were just riding in.

Hoffman and I once sat in a workshop while the worst instructor we ever had a (it's actually a toss-up), lorded over us from a leather recliner as we sat on his living room floor. We discussed one of Dustin's stories that is now in this collection and that instructor told us (in his confident, pompous, and irritating tone), "There is a continuum from Kafka to Looney Tunes," and then spent a half hour or so explaining that Dustin's story was too close to Looney Tunes to be literature; it ain't Kafka enough, brother. Well, that story, along with the rest of the stories in Dustin's book are literature regardless of where they fall on that "professor's" ridiculous and pointlessly constructed continuum. I don't want to be a jerk about it, thumb my nose at a professor who (presumably) meant well, but I'm not gonna lie and say that it doesn't feel pretty damn good to see Dustin's work win this book prize because Dustin believed that what he was doing mattered and because he didn't listen to the barrage of bad advice that he was offered over the years (There is good advice in workshops, but there is a lot more bad and misguided advice. Like the guy who asked if I "Just wanted to be the Tim O'Brien of the Bosnian War." If that title comes with a six figure income, multiple book deals, and a 0/0/0/1 teaching load, then why the hell wouldn't I?). As a guy who's written a fair amount about continuums, I feel confident saying that there is a continuum from jaded and self-loathing professors to professors who teach because they want to and because they love writing and want their students to tell the best stories they're capable of telling. Hoffman and I were both lucky to have some of each. 

I know this dude; I know him well. I saw him this summer even though he now lives more than ten hours away, and our daughters played together in the park. We went to Dairy Queen and he witnessed my daughter eat her first bite of ice cream. He's taught an essay of mine in his creative writing class (or so I hear. I was never there, so I can't prove it), and there are so many "conflicts of interest" surrounding this review that I can barely see straight if I think about it for more than two seconds. But I don't care. There are writers who I have known just as long who I would never do this for (unless they wrote something that I loved, of course). Not because I don't think they're good people (although some of them are not: which is irrelevant to the art itself), but because I am not excited about their writing and I am not excited for other people to read it. 

So don't read that unnamed stuff that I just didn't name. Read One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist instead; it'll be easier to find. When you read Dustin's book, you'll be glad that you did: whether you spent summers painting houses and hanging dry-wall or if your summers were spent relaxing by the pool, passing time until the next party. These stories are about a real part of America that deserves to be seen, and a part of America that Dustin M. Hoffman has spent a large part of his life trying to show to us in a way that forces us to remember that all the floors we walk on (hardwood, tile, and carpet), the pipes (copper and PVC) that bring water to our faucets and toilets (and I guess bidets if you're fancy), the ducts and vents that guide heat and cool air into our rooms, were installed by people made up of the same stuff as you and me. And the struggles of those people, at work and at home, are just as real as whatever struggles we deal with ourselves. This is a damn good book of stories, and you don't have to take my word for it. But you should. Because I've known these stories were great for almost ten years.