Many years ago, I tried to write a blog that offered comment on fiction, film, art and music. I very quickly realised within a matter of weeks that it was a hard thing to do well and that I was better suited to something completely different such as photoshopping myself into pictures of The 13thFloor Elevators or re-creating Wire album covers using bits of plasticine.
Mostly I felt that I was in danger of producing something that approximated William Empson’s view of art catalogue text: “a steady, iron-hard jet of absolute nonsense”.
I’ve tried to avoid that here, when writing about twelve stories I love.
An unnamed teenage narrator recalls Uncle Willy who ran the local drugstore. The boys of the town would eat ice-creams and watch Uncle Willy inject himself with morphine: “somebody would say, ‘Don’t it hurt?’ and he would say, ‘No I like it.’” To the people of Jefferson he is a sinner who must be saved but to the narrator he is “the finest man I ever knew”. The teenager comes to Uncle Willy’s assistance in his final flight of agency: “He wound up his life getting fun out of being alive and he died doing the thing that was most fun of all.” I am not the first to say that this is the best film the Coen Brothers have not made.
First published in the October issue of American Mercury, 1935; collected in Collected Stories, Chatto and Windus, 1951, newest edition Vintage, 2009
I like iconoclastic young people. And wunderkinds can be thrilling. But there is nothing about writing which makes it necessarily the province of youth. Mary Ward Brown, for instance, was in her late sixties when she published her first collection, Tongues of Flame, set in Perry County, Alabama. Here are people who aren’t southern grotesques going about their business. In ‘The Barbecue’ a non-invitation to a barbecue confirms for Tom and Martha their inferiority – his physical, hers social – and the general unfairness of how things are. But what to do? “Why don’t you take an aspirin?” Martha suggests. But Tom’s mind is filled with questions “he couldn’t even understand, much less answer”.
First published in The Threepenny Review,1982. Collected in Tongues of Flame, University of Alabama Press, 1986
Rebel Inc was so exciting: Warner! Legge! Welsh! Trocchi! Fante! And taking her place with these bad boys was Laura Hird. Laura Hird! ‘Imaginary Friends’ is an account of a young girl and her piano teacher, Mr Patterson. Mr Patterson is a magician of sorts, a low-rent Prospero with a dog called Caliban, and he talks of the magical kingdom of Blackpool while using tricks and disappearing potions to manipulate a child. The narrative from the girl’s point of view maintains her unquestioning wonder and delight – “Why couldn’t she run away with him and Caliban and be his magician’s assistant and have him stick swords through her and then say, ‘Only kidding!’” – but when Mr Patterson vanishes for real, the reader feels huge relief. Yet the girl still maintains her belief in his magic. Hird presents a robust innocence.
First appeared in Chapman, 1996. Collected in Nail and other stories, Rebel Inc, 1999
Just as the majestic sound of 4AD bands in the 1980s prompted responses of the ‘shimmering shards of sepulchral majesty’ sort, so the artistry of Sean O’Reilly seems to provoke a range of abstruse, delphic musings of a laudatory nature. I feel I want to join in. But instead I’ll say that this is a story about a fella who goes to the christening of his ex-girlfriend’s baby.
First published in All Over Ireland: New Irish Short Stories, Faber and Faber, 2015. Collected in Levitation, The Stinging Fly Press, 2017
A used tampon at the bottom of a toilet, slowly seeping its blood like a miniature Rothko, can be a beautiful little sight. In Janice Galloway’s story however, a sanitary towel is jammed in a girl’s mouth to stop the flow of blood from her recently removed tooth. This is body gothic, corporeal horror: “the gum parting with a sound like uprooting potatoes”; “the roots were huge, matt like suede… Hard to accept her body had grown this thing.” As “the unstoppable redness” pools in her mouth she seeks out the white sanctuary of a school music rehearsal room and the clean sound of Mozart. But the door can’t be locked, nor the blood staunched.
From Blood, Vintage, 1991, and also The Picador Book of the New Gothic, Picador, 1991
In life you’re either a bastard or you’re a stupid bastard. That’s what my pal said. Kutcherov, an engineer, is involved in building a bridge near the village of Obrutchanovo. He and his wife like the area and so build a beautiful house there which becomes known as the New Villa. Generous and well-intentioned, Kutcherov and Elena treat the local peasants with kindness, but the people in turn regard them as fools, stupid in their benevolence. Even the bridge is called into question. Did they ask for a bridge? No. Did they get by without it before? Yes. Baffled and frustrated at their harsh treatment, Kutcherov and his wife eventually leave Obrutchanovo. In their place a government clerk comes to the New Villa, someone whose behaves as the villagers expect: “he talks and clears his throat as though he were a very important official, though he is only of the rank of a collegiate secretary, and when the peasants bow he makes no response.”
First published 1899, from Later Short Stories 1888-1903, trans. Constance Garnett, The Modern Library, 1999 and The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, trans Ronald Wilks, Penguin Classics, 2002. Available online here
There’s no necessity to love equally all the stories in a collection. (I know this was billed as a novel anyway.) Purely my personal prejudice, but handsome, high-cheekboned teenagers like Simon in Story 1, going inter-railing round Europe while reading Henry James to enhance their Oxbridge prospects, aren’t so much my thing. Story 2 however I simply adore. It’s glorious. Pot-smoking university dropout Bernard who lives in the suburbs of Lille goes on holiday by himself to Cyprus where he meets Charmian and her mother Sandra. It’s an Apollonian-Dionysian opposition, configured through selling windows, sitting Biochemistry exams, holding down a job versus getting the sack, sex, freedom and sun: “Mind empty. He is aware of nothing except the heat of the sun. The heat of the sun. Life.”
I also loved Story 3.
From All That Man Is, Vintage, 2017. Also picked by Philip Hensher in his Penguin Book of Contemporary Short Stories, Penguin 2018
After six years of marriage Maggie decided to have a day out. To be more correct, I should say that after she had been married for six years her mother decided that it was high time Maggie had a day out.
And so Maggie goes off to a nearby town, leaving her husband to look after the three children. The children enjoy the stew their father makes and like his way of serving it straight from the pot to save on doing any dishes. They appreciate too the freedom he gives them to roam. They jump on the corn in a field and find a bottle of crude oil which they mix with water on the ground, marvelling at the myriad colours, the ‘unicorn puke’ as my own kids call it. The father’s response to these activities ensures that Maggie does not go away for another fourteen years. It is said that Frances Molloy worried about being a ‘proper author’, that she wanted to write about ‘big issues’ and events. And yet in a story like this, dealing as it does with rural South Derry, there is beauty and control and violence and pain. There is nothing limited about it at all.
From Women are the Scourge of the Earth, the White Row Press, 1998
In these days of digital radio perhaps you are nostalgic for the times when, caught between frequencies, you could simultaneously hear opera and a cricket commentary. If you hanker after simultaneous multiplicity you could do worse than read ‘The Babysitter’, which is probably the most anthologised story I have chosen. One evening a teenage girl looks after the children of Harry and Dolly Tucker, a couple who are heading out to a party. But there are multiple lines, alternatives and versions. What’s a happening? What’s an imagining? Which of the various narratives can co-exist? Exhausting, because no consideration of Coover’s story can be exhaustive.
From Pricksongs and Descants, 1969, and now available as a Penguin Modern Classic, 2011. The story is also available from Penguin as a digital single and in a Modern Classics mini)
The high school hero, the former hottie – “the odd lumps of her figure bulged like the scutes of a turtle’s shell” – and the overweight girl, still overweight as a thirty-seven-year-old, are some of the people at the St. Paul’s Class of 1991 reunion at the Tavern on Bruckner in the south Bronx. The narrative shifts between Wolf, now known as “plain old Wilfred Jones” and Fat Rhonda who had “long ago decided it wasn’t worth it to pay much attention. The world was too awful.” The two in their youth had once had sex in a church. At the reunion it looks for a moment as if it will happen again, but it doesn’t. Brinkley’s complex and patient consideration of what has made them what they are creates people not characters. Wolf and Rhonda were on my mind long after I had finished reading.
From A Lucky Man, Graywolf Press, 2018
The TV series ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ provided my introduction to the short story. How wonderful after a Sunday night bath to watch a macabre tale involving perhaps murder, human taxidermy or people turning into bees. A bit of grand guignolbefore getting your school-bag ready for the next day was always welcome. My favourite was an adaptation of an Elizabeth Taylor story. An unhappy child, Sylvia, is harassed on a bus by a strange and overbearing older man, but a woman comes to the girl’s rescue and takes her home. The tale moves to a deeply shocking conclusion which involves the careful laying out of three tea-cups. The child observes a fly-paper hanging in the window: “Some of the flies were still half alive, and striving hopelessly to free themselves. But they were caught forever.”
First published in The Cornhill Magazine, Spring 1969. Collected in The Devastating Boys, 1972, and Complete Short Stories, 2012, both Virago Modern Classics
When I go for a drink by myself, something I enjoy, I always entertain the fancy for at least a few minutes that I am a woman in a Jean Rhys story. Living in a Bloomsbury bed-sit perhaps, or soon to be chucked out of my lodgings in Paris. I’m an ex-chorus girl. My friend was killed by her gigolo lover. I’m tired of men and being poor and lonely. Can I have another drink? In this particular story Petronella Gray recounts a series of encounters with not very satisfactory men, the last of whom was nothing more substantial than someone in the front row at the theatre when she was on stage and forgot her lines. An endearing, funny heroine, Petronella too knows what it is to be immersed in the world of a story, in her case French or German or Hungarian romantic novels: “[you] go about in a dream for weeks afterwards, for months afterwards – perhaps all your life, who knows? – surrounded by those six hundred and fifty pages, the houses, the streets, the snow, the river, the roses, the girls… the old wicked, hard-hearted women and the old sad women, the waltz music, everything.”
First published in The London Magazine, January 1960 and available online here. Collected in Tigers are Better-Looking, Andre Deutsch, 1968 and The Collected Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 1987