This is beautiful writing. The poetry of the first line announces the tone -- "He is awake before daylight greases the black pan of the sky" -- and the verbs play with the reader ("luff" and "susses"). Given that the prose tilts toward poetry, it's not surprising that the section titles use the poetic technique of sliding straight into the next paragraph:
Will not make it.
"Brief Lives of the Trainmen" works by means of accumulation. Accumulation of perspectives (10 POVs) and of detail (I love the period details like "oil of Macassar"). The plot isn't linear but simultaneous -- these are one-off slides of individuals. In this larger mosaic of train work, there's theft, bestiality, maiming, hunger, and lots of desperation.
Due to its inventive structure, this story isn't for everyone, but I admire it for accomplishing what it set out to do: to lasso a number of perspectives to give us a vision of life in that time period.
This is one of those stories that the more I read it the better I like it. That’s a good thing, don’t you think? —Certainly better than the opposite. Like Dan and John, I am drawn to the multiple metaphors and similes. But I think Hagy has more going on with this kind of language than local color and picturesque poetry. I think she creates a kind of stylized folktale, a cartoon-like world and cleverly leads us into it.
In my opinion, this is a story about how stories come into being. All the “brief lives” in the separate sections accumulate and create an alternate reality until that wonderful folktale episode of Captain Hallock’s horse being spooked by Joe Hanna’s shooting the cook’s rooster and throwing him into the laundry pot. Hagy says that this will not be the last word about the misadventure: “The tale will have ten verses and a chorus once the rail gangs slaver into it.” Why else would one of the characters in the story be named "Ode”?
Bret Harte once said of this kind of story (his kind of story): "It was Humour--of a quality as distinct and original as the country and civilization in which it was developed. It was at first noticeable in the anecdote or "story," and after the fashion of such beginnings, was orally transmitted. It was common in the barrooms, the gatherings in the "country story," and finally at public meetings in the mouths of "stump orators." Such characteristic American humor, says Harte, was the parent of the American short story.”
I don’t know if Hagy had Harte in mind when she wrote this story, but she sure creates a wonderfully Western comic image of “
This is a story about how great things grow out of little bits. That applies to the Transcontinental Railroad as well as it does to Hagy’s story.