Is hanging a circus elephant a viable solution for the relief of discontentment and depression? In a collection of 14 short stories, titled “What We Won’t Do,” Brock Clarke’s lower-middle class characters, suffer mostly from the same unfulfilled existence sickness that drives them to starve themselves, kill houseplants and burn Emily Dickinson’s house down.
The stories, complete with quirky situations, share a concern for the hardships of the workingman. “For me, the working class characters are always conflicted, productively so: they’re proud of being working class, and yet they wish they were something else. They know what it is to have a job, and they also know what is not to want one,” Clarke says. Tonight, he will be reading from his stories at Shaman Drum.
With polished prose, he successfully uses satire to address the complicated people with whom Clarke believes many writers are afraid to deal. Moving quickly from place to place, he ignores the belief that fiction moves systematically and sensibly toward an expected conclusion.
Another common thread in his stories is his characters’ frustration with literature. “I mean, I had read it in high school, but I was not impressed. All those hyphens and capital letters and flies buzzing and death personified did nothing for me,” claims a disillusioned character in “She Loved to Cook but Not Like This,” explaining what drove him to torch Emily Dickinson’s house. “They’ve been told that literature can change their lives which they know not to be the case. They can’t figure out what literature is suppose to do, which makes them feel dumb, and they hate feeling dumb as much as they hate the literature that makes them feel this way,” says Clarke, who is now writing a novel which takes a deeper look at the problem that literature can present for some people. The first chapter of his “Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England” is based on the short story “She Loved to Cook but Not Like This.”
Hailing from upstate New York, Clarke received his Ph.D. in English at the University of Rochester, and is now an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Clemson University. He has recently published his first novel, “The Ordinary White Boy.”
“What We Won’t Do” is a reissued collection of short stories published in February of this year by Sarabande Books, a nonprofit literary press. These short stories have previously appeared in publications such as the New England Review and American Fiction. The collection was the winner of the 2000 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction.