Line by line

Lodi author Richard Dokey fishes for meaning in literary waters and the Mokelumne

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

From his humble station amid the vineyards outside Sacramento, author Richard Dokey has steadily filled the nation’s best literary journals with his subtle, plainspoken stories. While even the most voracious local readers likely don’t know Dokey’s name, his hundred-plus published stories—40 years of fiction in mags like the Missouri Review and Witness—prove that the Central Valley is fertile ground for literature.

Literature, now, not shoot ’em up whodunits. Subtle dynamics and interior worlds are Dokey’s forte. “Maybe people can mistake my stories as minimalism, but I don’t consider myself a minimalist,” he said in a recent interview. “Though I really like Raymond Carver.”

People have thrown him all sorts of comparisons—Chekhov and Hemingway for brevity, Steinbeck and Faulkner for rural settings—and while never one to strive for a style, the Hemingway comparison may come closest to Dokey’s heart. “Hemingway said that fiction writing was putting people in tense situations and seeing how they behaved,” he said. Just as Carver’s stories continually confound with their apparent lack of activity—people chatting over drinks at a kitchen table? When’s something going to happen? The complexity of Dokey’s fiction creeps up, unfurling striking layers of humanity to quietly reward the patient observer.

Dokey is nothing if not patient. In an art where 30 to 50 magazines regularly reject a story before one finally publishes it, Dokey perseveres.

Born in Stockton to parents with no formal education beyond high school, Dokey knew he wanted to write, so he studied journalism at UC Berkeley. Funding his education by working in a railroad, a shipyard, an ink manufacturing plant and a Dr. Pepper factory, he wrote for a small paper after college but found typing dry journalistic stock by day drained the joy of writing fiction at night. Then he ran into his freshman English teacher who suggested teaching. “I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding,’” Dokey admitted. “But he pointed out all the time I’d have off to write—summers, vacations. It wasn’t a bad idea.”

He’s been teaching philosophy at San Joaquin Delta College for over 30 years. “It turns out teaching is the best thing I could’ve done.”

Committed to his calling, Dokey studied the market. While well respected in the literary world, journals like Epoch, Third Coast and New Letters—lacking, say, Esquire’s ad revenue and readership—rarely pay in more than contributor’s copies. “I knew I wasn’t going to get rich,” he said.

Still, journals form the backbone of literary publishing; just browse the acknowledgements page of Dokey’s collection Pale Morning Dun. Released by University of Missouri Press, Pale Morning Dun varies from humility to humiliation, selfishness to isolation. Lots of isolation. Desperate but unwilling to connect, two TV-addled office drones dodge the depth of their yearning in “The Mouse.” A loner marries a doughy, older woman solely to relieve his parental burdens, then chases her when she leaves in “Hampton’s Folly.” Quiet, dark humor underlies the drama, often emerging in an ironic twist or turn of phrase, as with the accidental hero named Monkey or the imposter who, donning soiled rags in “The Beggar of Union Square,” exposes a homeless man’s fraud, and his own. Neatly chiseled language turns teachers into “thick-ankled bison” and sweaty boxers into eels, and renders beautiful symmetries: lives as skewed as grade-schoolers’ cursive; a cat as damaged as an aimless child.

Of his five collections and two novels, three of the earliest—Two Beer Sun, 1979; Birthright, 1981; and Sundown, 1982—came out on Valley writer Art Coelho’s Seven Buffaloes Press. Coelho, from a Portuguese farm family, was interested in publishing rural Valley writers, and after he and Dokey met at a Fresno signing for the California Heartland anthology, they struck up a relationship. (Edited by Oildale’s Gerald Haslam and novelist James Houston, California Heartland collects work from fellow locals like Gary Soto, William Saroyan and Joan Didion.)

But don’t call Dokey a Valley writer. “I don’t see myself as a regionalist in the narrow sense of the word,” he said. “My stories depend largely upon character. … Regionalism is too confining to me.” He’s just a writer who lives here.

A number of books capture Valley color and history—Frank Norris’ The Octopus, Haslam’s The Other California, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—but, unlike the South’s literary tradition, these hardly constitute a canon. “I suppose if there is a Valley literature, it’s one only linked thematically, and even then these guys like Soto and Haslam, great guys, are just writing what they know: farming, being Hispanic in Fresno, growing up in Oildale.”

While Dokey sets many stories locally, setting, like character, remains only one of many tools serving the narrative. “I’ve always seen myself as a citizen of the world, and my imagination is such that I could place myself where I chose.”

Labels, like collectives, can be tricky business. “When [Valley literature anthology] Highway 99 first came out, Gerald and James and a bunch of us thought, ‘Hey, we should really get together more. Wouldn’t that be great?’” Dokey recalled. “But that’s the thing with the Valley, we’re all so spread out—75 to 150 miles apart. I don’t call them and they don’t call me. I’m down here doing my thing.”

Unburdened by models, repelled by trends, Dokey remains a staunch individualist. While schooled in the classics, Carver is the last moderner he’s read. “Maybe it’s a question of not being contaminated or effected in some way,” he mused, “but I sort of stay away from the people who are still alive.” The idea makes him laugh. “Maybe that’s strange, I don’t know. … It’s a way of keeping my brush in my own ink.”

Wearing a white triangular mustache and tiny chin-divot suggesting constant smirks, Dokey’s gentle eyes sparkle with the mischief of someone carrying metaphysical secrets. “In the end it’s just you and that one reader who understands. That’s the guy you’re looking for. The rest are of no importance.” Screw the peanut gallery. Fortunately, nestled amid Lodi’s sprawling vineyards, Dokey remains far from the tipped noses of trendoids and critics.

Of course, with a booming population and former cow towns like Manteca becoming Bay Area bedroom communities, concrete threatens to smother the rural roots that makes the Valley and its literature distinct. But Dokey doesn’t fear an identity crisis. “Everything changes. One-hundred and fifty years ago, there was ‘nothing’ west of the Missouri River. … I dread the day when the Valley gets so—I won’t be around then, of course—so crowded that you lose the open-sky quality. … To look at the tops of buildings or to go outside and all around me is concrete, that doesn’t appeal to me. That’s why I don’t live in the city in the first place.”

Taught to fly-fish in the Sierras by his father, Dokey’s chased trout as far as Chile and New Zealand. Yet, despite crowds, he still fishes childhood streams like the Mokelumne. “Hat Creek, up near Redding, is my favorite California trout stream,” he said. “That was, I think, the first in California to have a no-barbed-hooks rule, which is pretty neat.”

Fishing, an element so prominent that Pale Morning Dun’s cover features a mayfly, is both hobby and symbol. “Writing is an act of discovery, a way of finding meaning and understanding,” Dokey explained. “Fishing is a metaphor for life in the same way.”

It’s the process he’s interested in. “Every story grows from nothing and becomes something as I fight my way through it. All writing is discovery. No discovery, no vital interest for me.”

Dokey finds a powerful metaphor in the mayflies in the book’s title story, who spend years on the stream bottom just to sprout wings for one day before getting gobbled. “Even though we know we’re going to die, that this is such an ephemeral existence, why don’t we just lay down, give up? Instead of swallowing a bunch of pills we go on. It’s what makes us human. To try to do something that matters. If we were immortal, we wouldn’t do anything but lay around.”

And he’s not one to lay around.

“Usually I’m always working on something. If I’m not I feel guilty, and that I have to get back to it, since that’s how I’m most alive.” Forty years of fiction might be enough for some people, a body of work foreshadowing, if not encouraging, retirement, but Dokey never looks back. “All that matters is the blank page and the words going down,” he said. “Thanksgiving dinner was lovely, but I can’t eat yesterday’s meal. I am always hungry for tomorrow.”

Still, even God napped after seven days. “When I leave a writing stint, I don’t want to inhabit a writing world. One of the best places I know is Big Timber, Mont., where my brother and I fly-fish each year. We’ve done this for 30 years, and no one in town knows that I am a writer.”

“I’ll probably die face down in a stream somewhere,” he said.

Or at his desk.

“I am mostly a solitary bird trying to fly as high as I can,” Dokey said. “There are hawks and sparrows. Maybe I’m a hawk. I truly don’t enjoy the vanity, schmoozy part of writing. I just hope to be read years after I’m gone.”