Posts Tagged ‘small town’
You go weeks, a couple of months, without blogging about a short story so, when you do, you tell yourself it’s got to be a story that gets you right there, between the ribs. It’s got to be a story that walks the planet like an ambassador for everything you believe about writing. And you know the story you want to use. But it’s not your story, not really. It should be the story that first made you understand, made you believe. But the truth is you had no idea it existed until some guy put you onto it a year ago. You hope they won’t notice. But they’ll notice.
So – full disclosure: if this post encourages you to track down Until Gwen, by the writer whose novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island, were made into acclaimed movies, credit must go to my colleague, John Sayle, at Liverpool John Moores University. John introduced the story to first year creative writers in a lecture ostensibly discussing dialogue technique. Certainly, Lehane has a fine ear for the dialogue within Americana’s underbelly, a comfortable fit within a tradition that links Damon Runyan with the likes of Elmore Leonard, Quentin Tarantino and George Pelacanos, joined lately and from a more northerly point by D.W. Wilson. Beyond that, though, the characters come across like you’re watching them in HD after finally jettisoning the old 16″ black & white – you witness them in pungent, raw flesh to the point where it becomes lurid – and Lehane’s dislocated 2nd person narrative propels you into a plot whose most brutal turns are disclosed to you like an opponent’s poker hand.
In quite other ways, and the area I wish to consider here, Until Gwen tells us a story about the writing process that should be instructive to would-be authors grappling with the distinction between having the ideas and making the writing. Dennis Lehane has said that he’d had the opening sentence of Until Gwen long before he had conceived of any of the characters, their relationships or what might happen to them. It’s no wonder, having come up with this line, Lehane knew that someday he’d have to build a story around it:
Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
The one guarantee is that, having read this, your reader is going to move on to the second sentence, which is also pretty good:
Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part-time.
We must steer the Dodge Neon around any prospective spoilers but there is no jeopardy in noting that, below its carnival transgressive veneer, this opening contains the lead-weighted certainties of the thriller: when even the hooker is only part-time, nothing is quite what it first seems; we may be driving away from the prison, but it’s still there in our wonky eyeline; the orchestrator of the goody bag of petty crime presented to the central character on leaving prison is introduced to us as “Your father”; and even though we, the reader, have all of this shoved onto our lap, we have no idea who our proxy, “you”, is.
Through the remainder of the story, we discover the endgame from the four years’ thinking, forgetting and remembering time afforded to the young man, whom we later discover, as memory returns, was called “Bobby” by his lover, Gwen, conspicuous by her absence from the welcome party mentioned above. The thriller is played out between son and father, while Bobby’s memories of Gwen reveal a further great strength in Lehane’s prose, his facility for articulating male yearning. Gwen is typical of Lehane’s small town, big-hearted women who recognise something approaching nobility in nihilists like Bobby, who in turn represent hope, escape and salvation and whose relationships invariably collapse with the burden of this representation:
You find yourself standing in a Nebraska wheat field. You’re seventeen years old. You learned to drive five years earlier. You were in school once, for two months when you were eight, but you read well and you can multiply three-digit numbers in your head faster than a calculator, and you’ve seen the country with the old man. You’ve learned people aren’t that smart. You’ve learned how to pull lottery-ticket scams and asphalt-paving scams and get free meals with a slight upturn of your brown eyes. You’ve learned that if you hold ten dollars in front of a stranger, he’ll pay twenty to get his hands on it if you play him right. You’ve learned that every good lie is threaded with truth and every accepted truth leaks lies.
You’re seventeen years old in that wheat field. The night breeze smells of wood smoke and feels like dry fingers as it lifts your bangs off your forehead. You remember everything about that night because it is the night you met Gwen. You are two years away from prison, and you feel like someone has finally given you permission to live.
Until Gwen ends the way it does because it began the way it did. Lehane’s premise of bad men and botched heists delivers an operatic crescendo within the short story format. He has written through the ideas sparked by that opening line and, along the way, found this narrative. The methodology enables the characters and situations to take shape amidst a series of tropes with which Lehane is comfortable. The peculiar and deadly sprinkling of diamonds holding the small town in thrall equates to the child murders in Mystic River or the epidemic of stray dogs in Lehane’s long short story, Running Out Of Dog, which also features a woman as potential salvation-figure, as does another short story, Gone Down To Corpus. Meanwhile, Bobby’s quest for his own identity resonates with the story about identity suicide, ICU, for which Paul Auster’s City of Glass is also a touchstone.
All this expansion, from an anonymous beginning to the process whereby the story becomes embedded within the writer’s broader preoccupations, is significant. The story’s performative narrative plays itself out by resolving its central struggle but there is plenty left unresolved, deferring as it does to life’s natural messiness. I’ve seen readers speculate and debate about the morality of the main characters and the fates of those around them but a fascinating titbit about Until Gwen is that Dennis Lehane came away from the story every bit as curious about the characters as his readers were. The characters, he has written, “kept walking around in my head, telling me that we weren’t done yet, that there were more things to say about the entangled currents that made up their bloodlines and their fate.”
The result, the other prompt for which was a challenge to write a theatrical part for his actor brother, which would allow him to play (against type) a morally irredeemable character, was a short play, Coronado. To go into too many details about the additions and alterations made to the story would once more risk spoilers since the play ties up several of the story’s loose ends. It does so with elegance and in a way that suggests Lehane has created a new puzzle for himself with his first act, and resolved it in the second.
Coronado, the script providing the title for a collection otherwise comprising of Lehane’s short stories, stands alone impressively as a play, the strong-arm poetry of the 2nd person narrative in Gwen sculpted to a somewhat less naturalistic set of voices, emphasising perhaps the operatic strains I picked up from the story and very much at home in the American theatre of Arthur Miller or David Mamet. Yet it couldn’t have come about without the ellipses in the short story – had Lehane been fully aware of his characters’ fates, he might not have written the play, might have left them in the short story and that might, perhaps, have become a novel. This makes me wonder about the ethics of leaving matters unexplained. Do we owe our characters (never our readers, who can never be allowed to override our creative controls) answers? For all that they share storylines and sections of text, I am not sure it’s helpful to place Until Gwen and Coronado too close together in our imaginations, lest one text overpowers the other.
An alternative companion piece to Until Gwen might be Vincent Gallo’s brilliant 1998 auteur effort, Buffalo ’66. There are shades of Bobby’s parole disorientation in the opening scenes of Gallo’s petty criminal, newly released from prison with a full bladder and nowhere to relieve it, eventually kidnapping a young tap-dancer (Christina Ricci) in his frustration (although, if Gallo has a fictional role model here, it may be Patrick Dewaere’s superbly jittery shambles Franck, central to a disastrous heist and the most downbeat lovers-on-the-lam scenario imaginable in the 1979 French film Série noire). Whilst a different type of antagonist to the father in the Lehane story, Ben Gazzara’s Jimmy, the father of Gallo’s character, offers a complementary montage of charm and menace.
Julian Barnes, in a recent Guardian article, ahead of the reissue of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, for which he has written the introduction, discusses how Ford’s quartet of novels has come to be regarded as a tetralogy, with the final novel, Last Post, widely derided and commonly discarded. Indeed, save for a motif of a couple of logs of cedar wood thrown on the fire, Tom Stoppard’s acclaimed adaptation of Ford’s novels for BBC/HBO, which prompted the re-print, brings the parade to an end at the climax of book three. Barnes makes a persuasive case for Last Post but, in doing so, relates Graham Greene’s decision to dispose of the volume in an edition he edited in the 1960s. Greene accused the final book of clearing up the earlier volumes’ “valuable ambiguities.” I find Coronado a soulful re-imagining of Until Gwen, the more fascinating because the author has, in a way, re-interpreted his own work. But Greene’s phrase reminds us that ambiguity is a defining strength of the short story. Whether Lehane had done anything else with them or not, the success of his and many other short stories is that the characters might step out from the text, valuable ambiguities intact, and wander around the reader’s minds for years to come, insisting that we aren’t done yet.
He seized a blanket from the nearest bed and, using it as a weapon, flung it to right and left about him in the air. He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks. The blanket became a weapon of defense; he wound it about his head, and then in greater darkness beat at the birds with his bare hands. He dared not stumble to the door and open it, lest in doing so the birds should follow him.
If there is one element – and it’s easy to argue that there is just the one – that remains constant in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novella, The Birds, and the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation, it’s the horror visited upon the human characters by the frenzied blitzkrieg of bird after bird after bird. The respective dates of release for the story and film give a clue as to what might have governed their many differences: Du Maurier’s backdrop of post-war austerity contrasts with the technicolour permissiveness depicted by Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter, embodied by Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels. For all that, and to say nothing of the vast differences in setting, plot, characters, themes and even the explanation given for the birds’ attack, both works are merciless in the way they peck at our vulnerability.
In the Reel Time Short Stories series, the issue of adaptation – detecting what exists within the short story that lends it to visualisation and expansion – is accompanied by the question of whether and how we might identify generic short fiction traits in the story told on film. Du Maurier, whose Jamaica Inn and Rebecca had previously found their way into the cinema under Hitchcock’s direction, was said to have disliked Hitchcock’s reinvention of her story. She wasn’t, in fairness, known to be a fan of very many of the screen adaptations of her fiction (Hitch’s far more faithful Rebecca among the few exceptions) but it’s also reasonable to suggest that a pretty decent movie could have been made using far more ingredients from the story of farm worker Nat Hocken and his efforts to protect his family from the waves of bird attacks that have swept across Europe and the rest of Britain, as far as Nat’s home on the Cornish peninsula. It’s a taut, naturally horrific narrative of survival. It would have made perfect sense to the readership so soon after a war which had been experienced on the Home Front in terms of battening down the hatches against bombing raids, clinging to the wireless for scraps of information and guidance, and the privations, still partially active in 1952, of rationing. Each is present and correct in Du Maurier’s story; indeed, the film, which prioritises diegetic sound over Bernard Herrmann’s more familiarly Hitchcockian musical prompts, suggests a wartime air raid when we first see the birds attack en masse at Cathy’s birthday party, the wing beats like strafes of gunfire, mixed with explosive squawks and popping balloons. Through Nat Hocken, Du Maurier goes beyond the sensation of such wartime sieges to represent the constant mustering of new resolve to resist, protect and then cajole and organise and take action to go through it all again:
He decided they must sleep in the kitchen, keep up the fire, bring down the mattresses, and lay them out on the floor. He was afraid of the bedroom chimneys. The boards he had placed at the chimney bases might give way. In the kitchen they would be safe because of the fire. He would have to make a joke of it. Pretend to the children they were playing at camp. If the worst happened, and the birds forced an entry down the bedroom chimneys, it would be hours, days perhaps, before they could break down the doors. The birds would be imprisoned in the bedrooms. They could do no harm there. Crowded together, they would stifle and die.
Nat sets about bringing mattresses downstairs and maintaining a reassuring commentary for his family. We then hear his thoughts:
“We’re safe enough now,” he thought. “We’re snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter. We can hold out. It’s just the food that worries me. Food, and coal for the fire. We’ve enough for two or three days, not more. By that time . . .”
I see strong parallels with the unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, steering his son towards whatever temporary, relative safety they can find, and also away from the worst kinds of barbarism they encounter, aware that there’s again a brutal relativity in those choices. In The Birds, the morning after his first battle in the dark with invading birds, Nat is sickened at the sight of the “little corpses [of]…robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings”, erstwhile companions to his work out of doors, that he has been forced to kill. Later, having gone to the farm and discovered the dead bodies of his supervisor, Jim Trigg, and of Mrs Trigg, the priority of survival over sentiment is not exactly easier, but more immediate and instinctive. The manner in which this new knowledge of his capabilities is absorbed can be seen in this tiny, powerful detail as his wife serves him food:
She poured out a plateful of the Triggs’ soup, cut him a large slice of the Triggs’ bread, and spread their dripping upon it.
Du Maurier’s portrait of a man engaged in a struggle against nature, almost more than the horrifying images of the crazed flocks, is what makes The Birds utterly engrossing. Hitchcock and Hunter tend to allow brief glimpses of what Du Maurier contemplates at length in her text, though the sense of a man measuring his own masculinity by his ability to take control at a time of heightened danger, and to resist invaders, comes through when Rod Taylor’s Mitch barricades his mother’s house. Hitherto, his rugged exterior has belied a suspicion that he lacks the qualities to step into his recently deceased father’s shoes as the man of the house. In this, he shares a horror movie lineage with, among others, Duane Jones’ Ben Huss in The Night Of The Living Dead – whose masculinity is not in question but, as a black man, his right to address as an equal and even command other men in inherently challenged – and Simon Pegg’s Shaun in Shaun Of The Dead. John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of The Road may also be said to link Viggo Mortensen’s father to these characters in a way the book didn’t, by presenting more images of the family life, hinting at the clean-shaven Mortensen’s intellectualism and ‘soft’ white collar credentials, before entering the narrative’s post-apocalyptic scenario. Nat Hocken doesn’t need to prove himself in those ways; nonetheless, there is a sense of pride in the way he regards the emergency measures he’s taking:
He went and examined all the windows. His work had been thorough. Every gap was closed.
In Jon McGregor‘s 2012 story, If It Keeps On Raining, we can detect a similar satisfaction in the handiwork of another man building a defence against nature, in this case a tree house to evade the floods he expects to surge across the fenland of Eastern England:
It might not be the finest treehouse ever built but it does what it needs to. It’s difficult to get the details right when you’re fifty foot up in the air. It’s hard enough getting all the wood up there in the first place. It would be easier with two people. But it’s just him, now, so it takes careful planning. Some forethought. And hard work.
Daphne Du Maurier’s focus is on one man, and his family, engaged in a struggle for survival, and she chooses to leave the Hockens in that state. Short fiction, even in the somewhat longer form employed here, does tend to leave suggestive gaps which several film adaptations tend to want to fill. What’s interesting about the wholesale changes made to Du Maurier’s story by Hitchcock – for which he engaged Hunter, whom we’ve come to know better as the crime writer Ed McBain, preferring an imaginative re-working by an established storyteller to the technical workmanship of a hack screenwriter – is the amount of short story tropes inserted as the story re-locates to California. Whereas Du Maurier’s birds were terrorising a whole country and possibly a continent, Hitchcock’s terror is localised, allowing a familiar small town narrative to play out. After the San Francisco opening in which Hedren’s Melanie and Taylor’s Mitch play off one another like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a romantic comedy, the film offers a luxurious prototype of the Simpsons Plot Detour as Melanie brings her couture and her sense of entitlement to Bodega Bay in an initially straightforward pursuit of Mitch. Then a bird swoops to peck her forehead and she is sealed up inside this world in which she is seen as more of a malevolent outsider than the vindictive birds.
Du Maurier pits man against nature, though not, I suspect, in an especially gendered way: it’s just difficult to envisage, in her story’s social context, the main character being other than a man like Nat. Although the exact reason for the bird attacks in the story is a cause for speculation rather than firm knowledge – consistent with the first hours of any disaster – there is at least a gesture towards logic in the wintry climate and bitter winds which seem to be demolishing territorial distinctions between different types of birds and whipping them all up to a desperate feeding frenzy. The calm which returns whenever they’ve eaten their fill is echoed at the end of the film but the Bodega Bay birds seem motivated by a range of moral considerations. Melanie’s arrival in the Bay, carrying two caged love birds, might explain the first injury she receives, solidarity among the avian classes, but this repugnance doesn’t explain the demonic energy that continues to be unleashed. The suggestion – and this will not be news to anyone who has read Camille Paglia’s 1998 BFI Classics critical analysis of the film – is that Melanie’s most damaging import is her female glamour and sexuality. The birds are therefore akin to a feathered militia of Daily Mail columnists – and this can, of course, only make sense on a symbolic level. Paglia’s rich depiction of Hedren’s screen presence and remarkable performance (in her feature film debut) present such a compelling case that it’s hard to imagine her reading of the film not to have been the common perception throughout its lifetime. And there are moments when it seems impossible to believe that any other reading is possible. When Melanie, lodging with Mitch’s old flame Annie – whose black hair and smoky voice suggest she’s more the one who’s been flamed, cauterised for having dared in the past to do what Melanie is attempting now – notes that there’s a full moon, the two women exchange a look of knowing trepidation. They might not understand the reasoning of birds but they need no reminder of the mythical power of the female menstrual cycle. When a delirious woman blames Melanie’s presence in their town for the bird attacks, screaming “Evil!” in her face, it’s an experience with which other types of outsider would relate but the particulars of Melanie’s evil, once again, are possession of a loaded sexuality, with intent to use.
Hitchcock’s The Birds is a horror and it does sample riffs from Du Maurier’s war allegory but its short story credentials are that it’s a small town chamber piece concerning the presence within a tight community of a vibrant outsider. In particular, the narrative resolves itself around Melanie’s effect on the other women: the tragic Annie, a walking ghost of spent sexuality, who allows Melanie to step around while she clings to a nurturing role in Mitch’s life; Jessica Tandy’s Lydia, Mitch’s mum and an elective crone; and young Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), for whom Melanie is an immediately aspirational figure. As with Nat’s heroic struggles against his fate, we don’t know by the end if Melanie has succumbed to the forces against her. As with much short fiction, we don’t seek to take away certainties, just a measure more of understanding. And, perhaps, a catapult, just in case it gets crowded on the jungle gym outside the school.
There is currently no indication in the Wikipedia entry on Invermere, British Columbia, a destination for summer retreats held like a slingshot by the Rocky Mountains around Windermere Lake, of the town’s literary significance. We may not be operating on the level of pilgrimages to addresses on Baker Street or for dérives through Dublin, but the small Canadian town has made an emphatic claim to a place on the short fiction map. The backdrop to D.W Wilson’s 2011 BBC National Short Story Award-winner, The Dead Roads, which I looked at back in October and which is included here, is examined in closer detail throughout Wilson’s debut collection. Invermere, the town out from which The Dead Road‘s protagonists are taking a road trip, is a constant presence throughout. The primary subject matter, though, is less the town, more its menfolk.
Each of the stories in Once You Break A Knuckle features a male protagonist, and Wilson very often examines them within their relationship with other men: fathers and sons, childhood friends, brothers, mentors, employers. Some characters recur at different moments in their lives while others unfold over years within the one story. An example of the latter is Winch, who emerges from the shadow, and initial narrative Point of View, of his father, Conner, in Valley Echo. The father here, as elsewhere in the story cycle, represents at various times – and often simultaneously – an aspirational role model and a booby trap to avoid. Conner and Winch have in common abandonment by Winch’s mother and, when the sixteen year-old Winch develops a crush on a teacher, Miss Hawk, he is disturbed to discover more common ground with his father. Miss Hawk’s presence in this story is typical of the way women feature throughout the collection. Neither irrelevant nor invisble, Invermere’s women represent additional spurs and challenges to the men, occasional comforts and somewhat baffling certainty alongside the other constants of their lives, like the trucks, the beer, the frozen lake, the condominiums in construction and the slippage of time. This is perhaps articulated most clearly in The Persistence, where women are central to the gaze of the protagonist, Ray, as can be seen in the memorable economy of this description of Alex, the attractive wife of Ray’s friend and current employer, Mud:
She wore track pants and a windbreaker, had probably been out running – one of those fitness women with legs like nautical rope.
Ray has returned to the area from what seems to have been a self-imposed exile following the breakdown of his relationship with Tracey, who left him for a rival building contractor. Now, with Mud and Alex in support, he begins to consider a new start and a possible relationship with a co-worker, Kelly. The reason for leaving and the reason for staying: the women are irrevocably linked to the emotions the men associate with the town itself.
The machinery of the town is wrought from masculinity. This is best exemplified in the person of John Crease, mounted policeman, security ‘consultant’ in post-war Kosovo, single father, martial artist, a man who, we learn in the opening story, The Elasticity of Bone:
[has] fists…named “Six Months in the Hospital” and “Instant Death”, and he referred to himself as the Kid of Granite, though the last was a bit of humour most people don’t quite get. He wore jeans and a sweatshirt with a picture of two bears in bandanas gnawing human bones. The caption read: Don’t Write Cheques Your Body Can’t Cash.
The description is courtesy of Will, John’s son. Their relationship is claustrophobic, the tenderness expressed in verbal and often physical sparring, and the impression grows across the various stories in which they appear that the bond is built on a stand-off between each man’s occult adherence to his own concept of male-ness. Although his father’s profession beckons, Will is, could be, might become a writer. It’s the time-honoured route out of the small town so much fiction and drama has taken, and which was so wonderfully lampooned by the Monty Python Working-class Playwright sketch (“Aye, ‘ampstead wasn’t good enough for you, was it? … you had to go poncing off to Barnsley, you and yer coal-mining friends.”). Wilson never targets the obvious dramatic flashpoint, never takes a Billy Elliot path by making Will’s writing a fetishised focal point – he just allows the slow resolution to roll into view. When this happens – as with other characters when we catch up with them after encountering their younger selves in earlier stories – the effect is slightly shocking but feels true. This may be because, while the where of these stories is unchanging, the when dances about, evading scrutiny of its larger contemporary narratives and instead presenting the community in moments of temporal suspension: what, in the title story, Will’s loyal friend Mitch describes as “days like these with Will and his dad, looking forward in time or something, just the bullshit of it.” It’s a pretty workable summary of what I mean by real time short stories, and certainly what is a particular trait of short fiction: presenting moments that may be lifted out of the specifics of time and space in their settings but that manage to illuminate something more elemental about the human condition.
The small town location provides the grammar for this story cycle. We’ve seen how other contemporary writers have pursued unifying themes for their short story collections – Hassan Blasim and Zoe Lambert‘s variations on war; Anthony Doerr‘s employment of memory as a framing device – but this thematic approach, while it offers publishers of single author collections the selling point of a hook, that makes it very much suited to our times, has a formidable history. With his story cycle based around one location, Wilson is making a connection with James Joyce’s The Dubliners or, more specifically in the small town context, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio where –
The town lies in the midst of open fields, but beyond the fields are pleasant patches of woodlands. In the wooded places are many little cloistered nooks, quiet places where lovers go to sit on Sunday afternoons.
– but where, in this story, Adventure, Anderson tells of a young woman, Alice, who does not join her contemporaries in the woods but instead –
As she stood looking out over the land something, perhaps the thought of never ceasing life as it expresses itself in the flow of the seasons, fixed her mind on the passing years.
Such is the inevitable fictional loop of the small town narrative, where characters are defined by place, and thereby defined by their bond to or desire to liberate themselves from the “never ceasing life” with its circular dramas and choreographed quirks.
The men in Invermere push and pull one another in various directions but, in the main, they seem scooped up from the same gravel. Difference relates to disorder in a context like this, as in Frode Grytten’s Sing Me To Sleep, where the alienation endured by the middle-aged Smiths fan mounts, through grief at his mother’s long illness and death, and his own quiff-kitemarked loneliness, to a beautiful, baleful crescendo of resolution. In Wilson’s The Mathematics of Friedrich Gauss, the first person narrative builds up a similar momentum, though the emotional surge at the end merely serves to clear away the narrator’s denial and reveal his truth to devastating effect. Along the way, we learn about the narrator’s inability, as the local mathematics teacher, to live up to the physical expectations of the manually proficient locals – such as his eminently capable wife – and we learn of his project, writing a biography of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the inventor of the heliotrope, who managed to combine mathematical genius with a labourer’s physicality:
The day after we met, on that beach near Saskatoon, my wife showed me how to gather barnacles for protein. She shanked a pocket knife between the rock and the shell and popped the creature off like a coat snap, this grin on her face like nothing could be more fun. I never got the hang of it. She has stopped showing me how.
– We’re not unhappy, I tell my wife.
– Don’t you ever wonder if you could have done better? she says, and she looks at me with eyes grown wide and disappointed.
Gauss’s first wife died in 1809, complications from childbirth. A number of people have recounted the scene on her deathbed – how he squandered her final moments, how he spent precious hours preoccupied with a new puzzle in number theory. These tales are all apocryphal. These are the tales of a lonely man. Picture them, Gauss, with his labourer’s shoulders juddering, Johanna in bed with her angel’s hair around her like a skimmer dress, his cheek on the bedside, snub nose grazing her ribs.
It’s one thing to write about the business of being a man with prose that strides into the room, waves its Jeremy Clarkson arse in your face by way of manly humour, and makes a Charlton Heston grab for Chekhov’s gun, placing it in the grip of its cold, dead narrative – but a writer who understands men will be able to depict emotion the way Wilson does in the passage above, and throughout Once You Break A Knuckle. There are versions of being a man here so alien to my sensibilities, Bruce Parry‘s inductions into shamanism in Borneo seem, in comparision, as complicated as setting up a Twitter account. Yet the alchemy at work in D.W. Wilson’s writing is such that, when I think about each of the characters in each of the stories, I can’t help feeling that I have been, at some point in life, some small part of every one of them.
D.W. Wilson‘s Once You Break A Knuckle is published by Bloomsbury Press.
Family and your favourite bands provide you with the love affairs you’ll have to make do with until it’s time to have love affairs with real people. They do not qualify as real people themselves, living in symbiosis with your sense of self, and your commitment to them is, accordingly, contingent on neither party changing, growing, maturing or ever really improving. There is a subtly chilling moment in Frode Grytten‘s Sing Me To Sleep in which the 40-year-old narrator remarks on the sartorial evolution of his idol, Morrissey, as a preamble to a description of himself getting ready to go out:
Morrissey is so bloody stylish. He always has been. He has more style than the whole pop industry put together. Some people think that he lost it after The Smiths, but that’s just bullshit. He’s still got what it takes.
I put on my black suit, a black t-shirt and my NHS glasses. The same glasses that Morrissey is wearing on the gatefold of Hatful Of Hollow.
Even though Morrissey is allowed to grow up and reflect his affluence in his dress style, the obsessive Smiths fan remains locked within the mid-80s uniform for disconnected young men and women.
Grytten’s story provides a superb example of a first person narrative in which the narrator manages to be a three-dimensional character whom we can study from all angles, rather than an avatar of the author. An example of the avatar-narrator might be Rob, from Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, whose list-making attitude to music, first, and then other people, is an indoors version of the football-watching, psychological self-portrait Hornby painted in Fever Pitch. Autobiograpical details aren’t a factor: Grytten is a 40-something from the small Norwegian town of Odda, where the story is set, with a quiff and glasses (more Richard Hawley than Morrissey) and a taste for 1980s post-punk and indie music, but the maudlin, stilted, repetitive prose, that we see in Kari Dickson’s translation, serves first to build the character and then throw him towards the definitive moment in his life: the death of his beloved mother.
In this way, the short story has much in common with the dramatic monologue and, although Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads are unlikely ever to quote from Please Please Let Me Get What I Want or the other Smiths lyrics peppering the text, we can recognise Grytten’s narrator as a Scandanavian cousin of the Bennett creations. The main difference, though, is that the Talking Heads talk to us, whereas Grytten’s character is largely talking to himself. He details the regimen of care for his mother and his accompanying feelings about her love for him, the devastation of her divorce from his belligerent father, the prospect of her death and how that will leave him bereft yet liberated – and we witness his affection, infuriation, shame and pride at the same time as he admits these feelings to himself. So, if you like, we are watching his soul in performance – very much in the vein of a solo work of drama – but the short story additionally has recourse to movement and action, the new dynamics that come with a change of scene; and Sing Me To Sleep makes the transition from character study to a classic, plot-driven Quest in less time than it takes Johnny Marr to take the tedious self-pity in a Morrissey lyric and transform it into something heroic.
Sing Me To Sleep is a contender for future analysis in our Reel Time Short Stories series as it’s been adapted for the screen in a 2010 Polish/Norwegian co-production, the watchful, ruminative longeurs of Polish cinema a good partner for the breathing spaces inhabiting short fiction. Grytten’s narrator and his mother share a mutual frustration at the life each other has ended up with, and this results in a sad, tender paso doble in their dialogue which leads to him blurting out the lie that he has a girlfriend, and that he’ll bring her to meet his mother the next day. It’s the moment when drama replaces characterisation, and it draws comparison with Wolfgang Becker’s 2002 film, Goodbye Lenin, in which an East German son nurses his loyal Communist mother back to health while hoping to prevent the news of the Berlin Wall’s collapse from shocking her into a relapse; in the Grytten story, the narrator has to navigate the understanding that, were his mother to die overnight, this would save him from his lie, but that finding out the truth would kill her, and he’d be the murderer. Another connection can be made with Paul Auster’s short, Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story – which has also appeared on film, within Wayne Wang’s Smoke with Harvey Keitel as Auggie – a seasonal tale of a palliative white lie between people who understand that the fantasy provides all the truth that’s going to be needed in that situation.
As well as the plot, the settings in these comparable narratives shape what’s being told. The tumult of Berlin in 1989 and the enduring affection Auster repeatedly display for his Brooklyn neighbourhood are what makes those stories happen. This is no less the case with Sing Me To Sleep, which appeared in Comma’s 2007 Elsewhere anthology of stories from small town Europe. Odda is the source of conflict and it’s the relationship that will never change, the love affair that will never provide relief or escape. While his mother’s demise is inevitable and the changes Morrissey has made to his look and his music can be celebrated, when Odda changes to become the Anytown that all our towns and cities are marketing their way towards, it only provides more confinement:
I have an inner picture of Odda, and it’s a beautiful Odda, a dirty and rusty and old Odda, but a beautiful Odda all the same. I don’t want to see the other Odda, the new Odda that is trying to be not-Odda.
“The rain falls down on a humdrum town,” somebody once sang. Until the clouds break, if ever they will, or you find some rain in a town less humdrum, bringing a fake girlfriend home to fool your dying mother can be the action of a hero.