A lot can happen to a writer’s work in four decades. Some refine an existing style, while others push at boundaries they may have established.
Dale Herd’s collection “Empty Pockets” includes stories taken from a trio of collections — “Early Morning Wind,” “Diamonds” and “Wild Cherries” — that were first published between 1972 and 1980, along with a host of newer work. And while the newer stories find Herd venturing into some new stylistic ground, they don’t lose the qualities that established him as a writer years earlier. With a strong command of dialogue and a penchant for characters navigating fraught emotional, sexual and economic terrains, Herd’s work can be magnificently discomfiting.
Many of Herd’s characters live on the outskirts of society. In some cases, this is by choice; in others, it’s out of necessity, whether economic or emotional. And for some, it’s a temporary matter. In the title story, a young man navigates the South, encountering poverty, racial tensions, questions of sexuality and ominously bigoted figures.
Some of the stories from “Early Morning Wind” reflect the era in which they were written. There are references to the Vietnam War, and a Mao-obsessed would-be revolutionary shows up in a story. But largely, these stories exist in a timeless space: Regardless of when they were written, most of these could have taken place at almost any time in the past 40 years.
Precise realism is paramount in these stories, but there’s also some subtle experimentation at work. A handful of stories make use of unconventional text layouts. Some last for only a paragraph or two, telling entire stories through one carefully chosen piece of dialogue, the speakers’ only description their choices of words and the way they relate to the people they’re describing.
In “Immaculate Conception,” for instance, a free-associative confession deepens into a moment of brutal insight, all in the course of a single sentence. Others simply set scenes and masterfully put their characters into place; “Bellflower Blvd.” is a pitch-perfect example of how to condense a longer history into a single moment.
Much of the strength of these stories comes in the way they juggle the explicit and the implicit. And on the rare occasions where Herd does overtly point something out in his prose, it seems out of tone, a signpost where no directions are needed. But overall, “Empty Pockets” provides a fine overview to the work of a writer whose work eludes easy description, but remains ahead of its time. Whether in his blending of the traditional and the experimental, or in distilling stories down to a precisely phrased form, these stories offer plenty to savor.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.