The first session in Nottingham Contemporary’s season of Southern Writers organised by Graham Caveney was excellent and not only was it a pleasure listening to Richard H. King speak about Southern Writing but there was the added pleasure of meeting the crime novelist John Harvey and his daughter too (John was a American Studies student on M.A. back in the day as they say).
I did not know Flannery O’Connor’s work although I had purchased her Complete Short Stories many years ago..it had languished on my very full and very unread shelves.
The session was a revelation and I have since been working my way through her ‘Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose’ collection which is wonderful. I always knew that one of my favourite writers Raymond Carver had referenced her as a major influence but it only now I seeing why. Her observations on ‘Creative Writing’ courses and their effectiveness made me laugh out loud (see her lecture ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’) ….she speaks of what she knows having been an early Iowa Writers Workshop student where she met John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren.
Here her major works in contemporary covers which shows how she was an illustrator’s dream commission… which leads on to yet another revelation..she was herself a budding cartoonist whilst at College!
The Signature below combines her initials into the form of a bird on her lino-cuts (her chosen medium).
Here some examples and what interesting is there is some stylistic similarity with another Catholic writer/artist Eric Gill possibly somebody she familiar with through Catholic journals. There also a sense of W Heath Robinson too….who possibly she saw as a child..
My favourite photo is this one of her on the veranda at her family farm in Andalusia with one of her beloved chickens ( a interesting connection with fellow Southern writer Alice Walker)
There an interesting blog published by the Museum that the farm has now become:
When she was six, living in a house still standing (now preserved as the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home), she experienced her first brush with celebrity status. The Pathé News people filmed “Little Mary O’Connor” with her trained chicken and showed the film around the country. She said: “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.”
What I have responded most strongly to in her writing so far is the confluence of regional identity..humour and this particularly visuality which I shown above.
John Huston’s film of Wise Blood seems embedded with Flannery’s visuality which may be why it seems so sharply drawn from the ‘directions’ in the text. We ‘see’ her world very sharply through her pen in an almost Dickensian sense…I have not read any criticism linking the two but I sure she would have been familiar with Dickens especially ‘American Notes’.
As I mentioned in last post the last three years have been difficult…that an understatement. After my Fine Art M.A. I tried to disengage with art school research and politics and reset my compass entirely to reconnect with my writing past.
I was lucky enough to be published by Salt in 2010 but the majority of the poems in that slim volume (now OOP) were poems I had written in my exciting debut back in 1992 and through my Scottish phase up until 1996.
Between 1997 and 2007 my output slowed from a drip to nothing but in my head I was still writing.
This culminated in a brief and not entirely fruitful term on the NTU Creative Writing course which I left after a miserable first term..I simply wasn’t ready to break the art school connection then. I can now see that this was the start of three years of depression which I now can at least recognise and treat.
I failed the first assignment as I was struggling to complete my first ever paid poetry commission for RIBA…..
I managed to complete that but the course suffered……
That essay tried to lay the ghost of my possible grandfather (see Coppard essay below) and I was gone…
With a final diva-like flourish I delivered the Fiction module short story…..I was too good for them I convinced myself burying the mental block once again..
David Belbin (standing in for the recently deceased Graham Joyce) was kind and marked it rigorously with his editors pencil and announced it a good ‘tough’ story which made me smile as I deliberately imitated the hard-boiled approach and dirty realism we both admired and played up to his stylistic tics. I put the story away in a draw until today..metaphorically it available online all the time here….
I think it good now I re-read it after nearly three years. I was going to change the detail of letting off the leash which I now know you can never do with a ex racing greyhound but the story still works because it suggests the woman and dog have a trust beyond its training and it could be read as the man provokes the running away….so I have not re-edited at all.
Little did I know that far from opening the floodgates of a irrepressible new fiction talent it was closing the door….since then I have struggled to ward off depression whilst dealing with circumstances of a personal nature that to be frank almost overwhelming.
But I have come through and part of my dealing with the mental block, the lack of an occupation ( I resigned from academic lecturing in January 2016) and my wife’s concurrent illness has meant that I now ‘re-engaging’ with the writing world.
Last night I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by academic Richard H. King on Flannery O’Connor where I met again John Harvey himself ( the person who published my very first poem way back in 1992 in Slowdancer thus starting my literary ‘non-career’ ) and Graham Caveney who has taken a similarly circuitous route back to writing as me and shares a love of obscure musical knowledge and the band The Feelies 🙂
It feels like everything has come full circle…maybe just maybe this time I can keep going but as I known to my cost it never easy.
As Carver writes in a wonderful essay on writing here …
Having self-published the latest pamphlet in an intentionally ongoing series ( I aim to publish a ’round-up’ pamphlet twice a year from now on) here some author’s notes on the poems.
The latest is ‘Burning Books’ Horseshoe Press Pamphlet No. 2 and I thought I’d try and describe what influenced the poems and what I think I doing which invariably different to what the reader imputes.
Burning Books and Buying Time ..education, morals, politics..everything can be bought these days. I am literally buying time at present using up savings before the next employment…..if there is a next one…
The Dance of Debt
The dance of debt been going on since time immemorial but never has it been such a mantra from the ruling classes..
Things are not getting any better no matter how many J.K.Rowling novels we burn….
Iggy Pop in a sideboard
True story on Foundation Art at Oxford Polytechnic I suddenly had enough money to buy my third ever vinyl album. The first was an MFP Oliver the musical soundtrack. The second was Alice Cooper’s Bilion Dollar babies then this. The copy I purchased was so warped it kept skidding when played on the Dansette tweed record player kept in my parent’s sideboard. I returned it to Woolworths and traded it for a flat copy of XTC’s White Music. I heard just enough of The Passenger to ‘get it’ and the details about Berlin are fantasy thoughts prompted by a documentary and footage shown after Bowie’s death.
Just for fun completely random stuff which has overtones of suicide airline pilots from the news owing something to Prynne and Oliver but not sure what. I never been a strident modernist in that vain and frankly get bored with poetry that needs decyphering or pretends to be something it isn’t. The factionalism of contemporary poetry means that if you go down that road you will have a loyal and small audience and not much else. It a good route for academics. A love of Bob Cobbing helps..the poetic equivalent of trainspotting.
London Calling (45)
Start of a series of Vinyl 45 related poems. Short and lyrical …that’s it with overtones of political comment just like the original songs.
Working on a Building of love (45)
See above any link to Corbyn is purely coincidental and anyway I ditched Labour for the Greens.
A Poundland sonnet
Both these ‘sonnets’ written pre-election. Angry squibs. Didn’t help the shits won anyway.
A Wreckless scheme
A retort to the great God Armitage’s dull work in the field. Armitage is like New Labour very successfull and very dull.
Edwin Smith – Catching Light
A commission, a PAID commission no less, for R.I.B.A. Now online at RIBA website too. Loved it as gave free rein to my retro-technology obsessions. Each verse dedicated to a particular camera Smith used at different times in his life. Lead to some interesting places which will explore further like Zeppelins over Wembley, 1930s Camden, Orwell and Fascism.
The description of the down-land cottage all true. My dad was a farm labourer in early 1960s. We were so poor he bred rabbits to sell. The memory of Matilda comes from school history lessons. Matilda fled Oxford and was given refuge at Wallingford (my school’s location) Castle. Her action changed history and ensured that the Plantagenet line was in power later. No Matilda no QEII..which despite all the 90th Birthday celebrations might have been a good thing..in fact how about no Royals at all? Personal note I fled Oxford too but on a London bound overcrowded National Express coach. Not quite as romantic…
The selling of England by the Pound was most brutal in the destruction of William Morris’s original company. Rover was the biggest employer when I a child now it the University. They let it rust….
Postcard to Okinawa
I hate acronyms especially nasty little ones that belittle the working class which most of them seem to be funnily enough…
The Oxford Professor of Poverty
Dedicated to Simon Armitage who has hoovered up everything I could ever aspire too with some of the dullest poetry I ever read.
Success in Britain is never offending anybody…and toeing the line forever…..New Labour through and through. His first book is where it ended for me…
Self-explanatory. Whilst writing I referred to Edwin Muir.
I was also was reading Cesar Vallejo in great translations published by Richard Price ( a proper poet) at Southfields.
Awfully Middle Class
Again says it on the tin. A classist rant and I aint apologising. If you are going to publish boring self-referential holiday snaps about reading Dante on the beach then be prepared for a slagging..naming no names..
Self-explanatory but I lost count of the number of times privileged i.e. wealthy middle class people have told me that life is what you make it, you make your own luck, you only have yourself to blame etc etc. BULLSHIT..this country is totally controlled and run by money and the class system has become MORE not less embedded in my lifetime. I would not have had a decent education in post Thatcher Britain because that is how the Middle Class voted and would like it to stay…if you poor you don’t get in the door…
SHORT STORY: THE LEASH
About the only thing I got out of my brief tenure on a creative writing course at NTU. Heavily influenced by David Belbin’s particularly rigorous copy-editing. He would make a great editor. It a parody of a Scottish Working Class realist story from mid 1980s. Not bad for a first attempt. More James Kelman than Irvine Welsh thank god …
The full story and a ‘contextual document’ about influences we had to submit alongside it are available on the blog here:
We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…
The leash to the greyhound tightened around her red raw hand. Across the river the lights of the car factory flickered and bounced in the water and she finally let go. The dog hesitated,then was gone, streaking off across the frosty ground toward the derelict bandstand that was disappearing in the dusk. She watched the dog circle the bandstand and head back across the icy grass. She suddenly thought of the family car her father drove when she was a child. The memory of warm leatherette seats and chrome trim around the dashboard vividly came to mind. Sometimes it smelt of his mistress. A sweet smell that was different to her mother. She wondered about the furtive kissing and hasty meetings that must have happened in that old car. She thought of his hand resting on the back seat on another cheap night out holding a cigarette. There was always a cigarette. Most times the car just smelt of the stubbed out butts in the ashtray. She remembered the ash swirling up and over her when the door opened once and her angry mother brushing it off her party dress.
The dog bounded away then returned. She always did. Her sides panting with the exertion of a few laps of the park. One time the dog had just kept going. She went home and had taken the back of Jimmy’s hand when she told him. He told her off for being ‘so fuckin stupid’. The two of them spent hours in another twilight looking for the pale grey dog. They were about to give up when she suddenly appeared from some bushes. Her right paw was dripping blood and leaving red paw marks on the tarmac path. It was probably caused by a broken bottle left in the undergrowth by the drunks that used the bandstand during the day or one of the teenagers who collected there of an evening. Jimmy said he’d never trust her with the dog again. A class dog in its day so he said,so he’d be walking her now. Just him. It didn’t last long. After a week he gave up walking her every night. He preferred the pub and his mates after a day as a plumber’s mate. So here they were again, her and that dog, circling the same dumb riverside park. The council estate behind them ricocheted to the sound of joy-riders cars and helicopters overhead as usual on a Sunday evening. She’d always liked the dog, more than Jimmy if she was honest. The dog was gentle and curled up at her feet when Jimmy shouted at her or showed her the back of his hand.
She bent forward and just managed to catch a hold of the collar. Felt the studs scratch the back of her hand as she struggled to attach the lead. Finally it was secure and she tugged the dog gently back towards captivity. They started the slow walk back down the side street that led home from the park. She watched the frost on the chain-link glisten. It was almost festive. The moon and stars above were fast being hidden by cloud as rain clouds came in. The quarter-moon above flashed and then disappeared like a coin in a drain. A woman in high heels and a tight dress careered into her, obviously in a hurry. The stupid woman almost fell over the dog’s lead. She shivered, just a little, then heard the first siren. Then another and blue lights flashing in the bay windows of the houses at the top of their street. Distant foreign and English voices merged as they echoed down the street toward her. She heard crying. Loud men’s voices shouting. Then she saw the van. Jimmy’s van. It was parked at a weird angle, half on, half off the pavement. She felt confused. It wasn’t time for him to be back from the pub yet. Every Sunday evening he’d leave her cooking mid-afternoon to watch the football and be back by seven. Always. It was half past six. Then she saw him sat on the pavement head in hands, not moving. Sat on the frosty pavement with a police-woman standing over him speaking into a radio. The police-woman’s hand on his shoulder half in sympathy, half restraining. As she got closer the voices became clearer but the foreign accents still confused her. The dog sensed Jimmy and started tugging hard on the leash. She wanted to go to him but held them both back.
Then she saw the bundle of rags under the front wheel. At least that what she thought it was until the shape of a small child’s shoe became clear. A paramedic was cutting the clothing from the child’s legs. The body was so still. She was now close enough to see a dark pool of what must be blood. Shone like a patch oil in the headlights. A woman in a long dress was being held back by a large bearded man. Other men were arriving or coming out of a local house. There was a lot of shouting in a language she did not understand. She had never talked to the people down the road. Jimmy said they were immigrants, or worse asylum seekers. Jimmy wasn’t the type to mix with anybody he didn’t know let alone their sort. He locked his tools away each night just in case after they had moved in. He’d heard stories down the pub. She stopped and could now see things clearly. Nobody seemed to see her or the dog. Jimmy’s van door was open. She could see the mess inside. Empty beer cans, empty sandwich wrappers. She stopped dead. Heart racing. The dog dragging at her outstretched hand which was now raw from holding on. Clouds still scudding across the quarter moon and the pavement glistening white under the streetlights. She could hear Jimmy sobbing now. Something was being said to him. A policeman got out of a second police car and pushed a breathalyzer at him. Head down at first Jimmy didn’t see it. The sobbing was making his body rock like the dog panting earlier. She’d never seen him cry. He was the tough guy. Always. The big man when out with his mates. He did things his way always. She just stayed out of the way. Most evenings she’d spend in that dimly lit front room with the telly on. Sometimes she’d light a cigarette from one of Jimmy’s smuggled packs even though she was trying to give up. Occasionally if lucky she’d treat herself to a single glass of cheap white wine from Tesco. She never got to join in the lad’s nights outs. ‘Girls was not allowed’, that was what Jimmy said. Most nights it was just her and the dog, watching Eastenders or some shit.
All of that had just changed. A third police car passed her and an ambulance pulled in behind. She couldn’t quite take it all in but like the clouds above her things were changing and moving on. The dog still tugged hard on the lead trying to join in the action. Suddenly there was a burst of activity and the child was lifted into the back of the ambulance at the same time as Jimmy was finally pulled to his feet and led to the second police car. There was a small bundle of rags left on the pavement soaked in blood. The second car disappeared with Jimmy. The ambulance left and there was just the first police woman inside her car now talking to her radio. She got out and started winding blue and white tape around Jimmy’s van and up on to the pavement.
She felt like she’d been watching T.V. Nothing seemed quite real. This was not the kind of thing that happened to her. Everything had a dull routine. Now this. She eased the tight lead on her fingers to try and get some circulation into her frozen fingers. The dog continued to pull at the leash. It was getting agitated and started to bark. She had to do something. Instead of walking past the police woman she turned and hauled the dog back towards the darkened path and the park where they’d come from. The dog sensed something had changed. She did too. She tried to take it all in. She wanted to be in their front room as if nothing had happened. Back in that dimly lit space with the dusty cheese-plant, the dodgy video player and the telly. She walked back around the park in the exact same pattern as before. She even pulled the lead off the dog but she just stared back at her and didn’t move. She shouted ‘go on…off you go’ but nothing. She gave up knelt down and held her tight and re-attached the collar. She could feel the dog’s heart pounding through its bony chest. She knew things like this happened to other people but she still couldn’t relate it to her and Jimmy. She remembered her mum used to say….’you don’t know what you don’t know’. It had never made any sense before. She started crying. She led the dog towards what used to be home.
She started to think about the child. Was it dead. Was Jimmy in really big trouble? What was happening? She was shivering from being out in the cold too long. Turning into their street again she saw the police woman driving toward them leaving the blue and white tape flapping around the van. She summoned up the courage to walk past on the other side of the road. The bundle of rags was still on the pavement glistening with frost under the street-light. She started to feel sick. She passed the house the people had come out of earlier. All the lights were on and she saw men talking in the front room. There were even more men than she remembered and more people arriving as she got to their front door. The key turned easily for the first time in months. She usually had to wrestle with it. The door swung open. The main light was on. Jimmy must have been back whilst they were at the park which was odd. Suddenly she could smell stale ash and the sweet smell of sex just like in her father’s car. Maybe she was imagining it. There were a couple of empty beer cans on the table. She didn’t remember them being there earlier.
She felt sick and let the dog go, still on its lead, then ran to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet bowl. She looked in the mirror. She wiped the blur of mascara from round her eyes and rinsed the taste of sick from her mouth. She stood there listening to the familiar sound of the dog lapping water from its bowl downstairs. She’d left the front door open and could hear foreign voices from down the road again. A siren could be heard but far away. Somebody else’s problem. Finally she went downstairs and closed the door. She sat for what seemed like ages looking at the cream plastic receiver on the wall. It never rang. Suddenly she went to the kitchen and fed the dog, grabbed some packets of crisps from the kitchen cupboard and went back upstairs to the bedroom. It took ten minutes to cram her few clothes into her old holiday suitcase. Grabbing her thickest coat she started explaining to the dog why they were leaving. She picked up the trailing leash and pulled the dog after her. They passed the blue and white tape, the frosted van, and the now stiff and frozen bundle of blood-stained rags and were gone.
Thanks Ray….and Tess.
Get in, Get Out: Writing the Short Story ‘The Leash’
These words are from Raymond Carver’s 1985 collection ‘Fires’ which was a starting point for my own engagement with the idea of writing short stories. Apart from a few false starts, which were closer to prose poetry than the traditional short story, ‘The Leash’ is my first attempt at the form. From the 1980s onwards I was drawn to the works of Thomas McGuane, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason and Jayne Anne Phillips. I became familiar with the concept of ‘dirty realism’ as defining American fiction from this period. The notion of ‘Sudden Fiction’ (the title of a 1986 anthology also known as ‘Flash Fiction’ or ‘Short Short Fiction’) appealed as it related to song-writing in its brevity. It was a style I felt familiar with both artistically and politically and it connected to the kind of music and lyric-writing I was engaged in. I wrote poetry but did not consider myself a prose writer. I have found the process of starting from zero in fiction very difficult. Far more difficult than I expected. Having lost the connection to writing poetry until recently and not reading fiction I found myself a complete beginner again. Apart from the Americans the most important writers to me historically were Chekhov (discovered through Carver) and Scottish and Irish writers. I did not and still do not consider myself as part of a particularly ‘English’ scene or style.
To ‘jump-start’ so to speak the learning process I read as many and various short stories as I could in the first term. The emphasis in class on constant reading producing writing made perfect sense to me and it was the reading that I lacked. I read as many short stories as I could including Rick Bass, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, John Burnside, Matthew Licht, John McGahern, Arthur Machen, Mark Strand, Joy Williams, John Romano etc. I liked some, hated others but used each reading experience and published an online critique for each as ‘Daily Shorts’. This experience was really useful as it started me analysing exactly what I might want from the fiction I wrote. The writers I selected were sometimes deliberate e.g. poets who wrote fiction like Carver and Burnside and other writers which outside my comfort zone like Machen and Romano (a scriptwriter). I found the experience both pleasurable as I reacquainted myself with past heroes like McGahern and Carver and also troubling as I struggled with more contemporary short story writers like Gaffney and Licht. My age was a factor that also coloured my experience here and in class as the generational changes in writing fiction, the new ideas of what fiction was or could be and the emphasis on generic styles like fantasy and historical fiction helped to challenge my ‘older white male’ literary boundaries. I have now completed two 2000 word pieces of fiction. The first of these in hindsight was where I made most of my mistakes. Leaving aside the number of ‘as’ or the over long sentences I now feel that jumping in at the deep end with a pseudo-historical Zeppelin spy novel with embedded images in the manner of W.G. Sebald may have been a tad ambitious. However just the physical act of creating 2000 words was a major achievement for somebody who had not got past 1000 words of any fiction before. My bizarre version of ‘Riddle of The Sands’ set on the Norfolk coast received the feedback it deserved and although there were good ideas embedded in the piece it has gone into the bottom draw for now.
‘The Leash’ is my first short story. It is just under 2000 words and the statement at the beginning is a reminder to myself of what I trying to do which draws on both A.E.Coppard and Jonathan Taylor’s introductions concerning the ‘orality’ of specifically short fiction.
We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…
It is simply a note to self….do not run, walk. Craft before imagination. Get in and get out. Write about what you know first. Written in one go no editing it relates to how I write poetry now. As a young man I constantly rewrote pieces to the point of destruction. I employed similar techniques in painting often losing work because of over working. Having hand-written it (important to me as this how I write best) I then re-edited a couple of times on the laptop. This feels right to me. I have read many descriptions of writing technique and this what suits me best others may have different approaches. I am happier with the story. It relates to a poem called ‘Greyhound in Frost’ written in 2002 but takes a completely different approach to the mid-1990s subject matter. It is my first attempt to write from a third person narrator point of view about a female character which means it not completely ‘authentic’ but I did my best. I still struggle with the idea of dialogue. It may form part of a sequence of short stories to be called ‘The Oxford Stories’. I think it is the first time I have found a ‘voice’ that like my poetry in fiction. Political, realist, working-class it is definitely not academic, historical nor particularly English in terms of influence. I have more in common with James Kelman than any Oxbridge writer…..hence the greyhound in the story is a tip of my hat to all of that.
 Raymond Carver, ‘On Writing’ in Fires (London: Collins Harvill, 1985) p.22.
 Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction:American short short stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986)
I have waited 22 years to talk about this….there are many reasons for that.
I hope this page explains all of them and offends no-one but truth will always be stranger than fiction. I dedicate the page to Daisy and Ivo Belcher.
I have finally after 30 years of thinking about it produced 2000 words of prose fiction which a relief as I had built up a mental block of ever actually doing it because I have been so immersed in art and poetry. The document has been sent to my class for discussion Tuesday evening so I am not posting the actual document until after the work-shopping.
I not sure it short story length already maybe 7000 do-able but it could be the start of a novel! Not quite the story I expected either but that the beauty of the internet one can find wormholes that set you off down a new path. In this case the mention of ‘spies’ in Norfolk set me off on a completely different angle to the original plot:-).
I was a big fan of action stories as a kid and consumed vast amounts of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, W.E.Johns,Ian Fleming, Alistair Maclean, Desmond Bagley etc etc.
Who would have thought that would come back to me now but it is fun…. 🙂
My first Atwood short story. Fairly long approximately 6000 words long. This length allows a fair amount of third person P.O.V. switching as the ‘hidden’ narrator which feels a lot like Ms Atwood such is the strength of her voice to ‘inhabit’ each of the different actors on the stage. The stage in this instance being a particularly creepy ‘new money’ lodge built in the Canadian wilderness which is more David Lynch than Twin Peaks and makes one wonder if Atwood influenced the young Lynch at all.
The story even ends with a ‘almost’ drowning scene that could have come straight from a Lynch movie although Atwood is sufficiently skilled to leave the ending open-ended.
In between we are first introduced to post-war emigrant, gangster and falsely named ‘George’ who only reveals his Hungarian roots with an accurate Hungarian curse mid story. It soon apparent that all the ‘actors’ Atwood assembles are in some way symbolic and deliberately set against the ‘wilderness’ for a reason.
The three sisters (muses…goddesses etc) represent the three states of womanhood….aggressive, academic and victim. Atwood’s seminal study of Canadian Literature ‘Survival’ focused on the victim theme in literature and also delineated a lot of the minor themes brushed up against in passing through this story. Atwood is no slouch in minor detail opening up wide vistas as in her description of the grandfather’s bookcase and the book which gives the story its title. (There is however no actual book called ‘Wilderness Tips’ apart from the author’s own which a neat trick to defeat all but the most diligent Googler).
The characters are not filled in too much but reflect the psychologies attached to them the least satisfying being the depiction of the office-bound ‘weak’ man of brother Roland. I never quite lost the feeling that Atwood was sermonising here and never sufficiently suspended my disbelief to get involved in the plot which boils down to bad man sleeps with all three sisters as he bound to by his nature.
Atwood isn’t above some sharp poking of the male psyche whenever able as the collection of essays ‘Curious Pursuits’ attests. Indeed the collection contains one essay actually titled ‘Writing the male character’ which makes Lionel Shriver look like a wallflower.
‘George’ is a sinister depiction of a lizard like consumer of both people and property. His inner thoughts do not quite ring true but Atwood is using a broad brush to make her point. George represents the ‘machine’ in the garden to paraphrase Leo Marx and like the serpent in this natural ‘Eden’ of the Canadian wilderness represents all that bad in the male destruction of nature.
‘Token Woman’ (her words) Atwood spits venomously in the essay about male character where she defends the depiction of ‘bad’ men rather than pandering to fake’new men’ well before the term coined. This fine if we sufficiently engaged to believe in the character but not when it a poison pen portrait or a stand in for a character as here. The most creative act he makes in the entire story is to have sex with the remaining not ticked off sister.
The female characters are interesting especially the ‘proto-feminist’ intellectual and therefore obviously least ‘sexual’ Pamela. Is not Atwood here demonstrating the kind of cliched viewpoints she so pointedly rails against? Set against her is the sexually voracious Prue and the demure,homely Portia……all obvious cyphers for states of mind. The rest of the stories in the collection famously depicted various literary figures who had helped or hindered Atwood and she settled old scores
Hints of this waspishness abound in Pamela’s sharp questioning of every word…’news or olds’, or in Prue’s ‘there is a need to be nasty’. One can almost taste the scorn on the character’s tongue coming direct from the puppet master here.
Most interestingly one could read the entire tale as one woman’s various natures treading between the hunter gatherer and the home-builder. Maybe it is really an academic feminist essay on how does the female intellect prosper in the ‘wilderness’ of male dominated modern and literary life….outside of the steel and glass towers, the wars of blood and oil. In this respect Atwood seems to suggest with her ending that the women always compromise rather than fight and that is how it ends with the line..manifesto?
She would be invisible, of course. No one would hear her. And nothing has happened, really, that hasn’t happened before.
The women survive…which was the title of the literary study.. SURVIVAL in the real wilderness of words.
First published in 1973 as ‘The Summer Steelhead’ (Seneca review, Vol. 4, no. 1 (May, 1973) and later as ‘Nobody said anything’.
Smudging was widespread practice amongst Yakima fruit-farmers. Pollution stopped crops being frost-damaged. (Source: Carol Sklenicka: Raymond Carver – A writer’s Life 2009.)
In the original story the final lines are different referring to the half-fish:
“He looked silver under the porch light. He was whole again, and he filled the creel until I thought it would burst.. I lifted him out. I held him.”
In the version I have read from the collection Will You Please be Quiet, Please? (‘The stories of Raymond Carver’- Picador 1985) the story ends:
“I went back outside. I looked into the creel.What was there looked silver under the porch light. What was there filled the creel.
I lifted him out . I held him. I held that half of him.”
Despite Carver’s insistence that this not autobigraphy the details (all except the fruit-farming’) match his upbringing and he admits to several incidents that patched together form the story.
1973 was the year he took up ‘full-time’ drinking and also three years before the publication of the short story collection this comes from.
The change in title and ending may reflect the influence of Gordon Lish whom Carver had met by now.
The change of ending maybe reflects the bitter realism of his relationship with his father who had died in 1967. The ‘half of him’ may relate to the broken relationship and the pain of his childhood.
As he says in a memoir:
Then he died. I was a long way off, in Iowa City, with things still to say to him. I didn’t have the chance to tell him goodbye, or that I thought he was doing great at his new job. That I was proud of him for making a comeback.
From My Father’s Life
the last line of Photograph of My Father also brings the two painfully together.
But the eyes give him away, and the hands that limply offer the string of dead perch and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you, yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either, and don’t even know the places to fish?
To me the poems and short stories are two sides of the same coin. The poems have been criticised formally but they are more interested in ‘saying’ than the formal concerns of language.
To me this is essential Carver. Male narrative at its best. Undertones of ecological miss-handling serving as ‘burners’ under the male indiscretions, foolishness and blind stupidity. Carver is all about how men fail and why they fail and why they cannot be saved from that failure.
He says in an interview that with this story he felt he had ‘tapped into something’ that something was the poetics of failure raised to a fine art.
Male egos as divided selves pulled apart by domestic bliss and terror as in his own life. Drink was the fuel for that burner and he doused himself in it for 4 years and almost succeeding in extinguishing his own flame just like his father. That he managed to stop the fires is a miracle.
I love Carver but I do not want to be him and write from that smoky place.
I have been collecting John McGahern books for twenty odd years. Like William Trevor and Frank O’Connor he was part of the Irish Parthenon of writers that just sort of there…like kindly uncles. Because of my focus on poetry to the exclusion of all else I had neglected them.
I hadn’t read any of them for years so it was with a little trepidation I opened a recently purchased copy of McGahern’s final edition of his collected short stories re-titled ‘Creatures of the Earth’ from 2006 that he had re-edited before his passing that same year.
The story I chose was a classic McGahern tale of three rural characters interacting. A police sergeant,a housekeeper and a visiting surveyor. Denis Sampson’s study of McGahern ‘Outstaring Nature’s Eye’ has a detailed analysis of the story and picks up on a Yeats reference to his ‘Coole Park 1929’ and swallows which also more prosaically refers to the Sergeant’s imbibing of whiskey.
I immediately fell under this tale’s spell. Not least because of the depth of ‘suggestion’ dovetailed by a craftsman into the ‘simple’ story. The poetic way the story unfolds like a well made bed is deeply satisfying. Sampson picks out the overall theme of ‘timor mortis’ lurking behind all three characters actions. Only ‘Biddy’ the deaf housekeeper is involved with the day to day and knows that will get her ‘ safely to the toe’, an apt metaphor for impending death, as she knits socks oblivious of art and the frustrations and failures of life around her.
The mirror must not be cracked before the last breath.
Meanwhile the sergeant and the surveyor both grasp at the lure of art in folk melody and Pagannini’s example but fall back into the workmanlike clutching at straws and dragging Roach into a boat…the day to day that need not even be eaten and is thrown back.
The collision of simple folk’s aspirations and dreams with reality like the young man mown down on his way to a haircut by a negligent ‘rich person’ is simply the matter of fact reality. It is how things are. We are none of us Paginnini nor Christ though we strive to be.
Beautiful deep and rich writing that continues on re-reading to unveil itself.
A bit like coming home. This is how to write.
Listen to your uncles now for we are all just creatures of the earth….
‘His greatest fictional achievement so far; never before has he shown the horror and grace of consciousness better than in these gems’ (The Times – no author traceable).
When John Burnside started publishing fiction he was in the curious position of already being a well-respected ‘award-winning’ poet. So his dalliance with ‘fiction’ and memoir could be tolerated. In fact the dalliance was quite long term and he now has almost as many published books in fiction as poetry.
This collection from 2000 follows two novels,’The Dumb House’ and ‘The Mercy Boys’. Both garnered good reviews and this collection of short stories…more a collection of stories around a similar theme appeared to the above adulation.
I have only read the last story ‘Graceland’ as intrigued as to the Elvis fixation and the only review I found online quoted verbatim the last few lines suggesting the reviewer may possibly have skipped the stories in-between as well.
Burnside had just published the excellent poetry collection ‘The Asylum Dance’. There is nothing in this short story at that level for me. The dreamlike, strangely sinister, tale of a boy lost and vulnerable on an aborted attempt to find Graceland who is instead being led to a substitute (dream?) version where he tortured by a fake Elvis in an Elvis mask struck me as simply silly. More League of Gentleman than Poe.
Fake or unverifiable popular culture references to TV or film ooze from the paragraphs pores. I only found an obscure film that matched ‘Best years of our life’ starring Kathy Burke, and she didn’t look anything like the ‘Wendy’ here ,which left me a little bemused. Not having read the rest of the book it appears that it a linked selection that needs to be read together like Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’.
Overall I felt like I was being driven around in a car tuned to David Lynch station ad infinitum but nothing more. Disappointing.
I checked out his memoir ‘Waking up in Toytown’ which far more clearly documents his life in the early 1980’s which catalogues his drug abuse and mental illness. This last story felt to me like a dispatch from the other side of that illness. Uncomfortable but not of itself satisfying like the poetry.
Not what I expected. The other books blurbs appear to offer no escape from this hinterland. Dark and bleak and full of strange furniture from the seventies but not somewhere I want to stay long…..a bit like Graceland.
I purchased this volume when it came out back in 1989 or 1990. Probably as flagged up by Raymond Carver or the Granta anthologies of Dirty Realism. I remember being impressed at the time. Going back to the collection I started with ‘Mississippi’.
Like a Townes Van Zandt (both from Fort Worth Texas) folk tale this story of a rich oil prospector’s son and a working class kid hanging out fishing in the swamp and finally wrestling a snapping turtle out of the mud before returning it unharmed (an early sign of Bass’s environmental concerns) was as I recalled i.e. impressive. This continued through to last story in the collection ‘Redfish’ where the poetic description of a menacing seascape and the futile actions of the two dwarfed humans acting out their drunken attempt at fishing was againjust as powerful as I remembered. The white BMW digging itself deeper into the bay at Galveston is an apt metaphor for industrial ‘progress’ and doubly ironic in light of subsequent events offshore at the Deep Horizon Rig which about as poetic a name for a disaster as one could dream up.
Rick Bass’s ‘other’ Deep Horizon has subsequently extended to a deep environmentalism and a string of ward-winning books including a fair amount of well-respected environmental books investigating the impact of human degradation on different species such as wolves and bears.
The cohesion is one of place revealed through man (and woman) testing themselves against both. That love of place and understanding human involvement has remained with Bass throughout and it a pleasure to return. I have one other Bass volume ‘Platte River’ his second book published in 1994. I have never read it since I purchased it in 1994, like some kind of time capsule, now I will.
A strange one this and no mistake. Mark Strand who had arisen as poet in Sarah Jackson’s lecture is now discovered lurking in Shapard and Thomas’s 1986 anthology of the then recently termed,’Sudden fiction’ which now typically called ‘Flash Fiction’.
The anthology I picked up in 1989 when fairly obsessed with post BASS* 1986 American Literature and many of the same individuals such as Carver, Barthelme, Coover, Wolff, Paley are present here
Dog Life is a slight, amusing yet somehow ephemeral take on male fidelity (I presume unless one meant to read the protagonist’s confessions as surreal realism and he actually was a dog). The male in bed (echoes of David Belbin’s Games in Bed here!) confesses that he formally a dog with dog-like instincts ….it hard not to read the list of conquests as anything other than male boasting and the female’s reaction of going back to sleep and forgetting about it just about sums up the tale.
Strand in this period up to 1985 had stopped writing poetry for ten years and the collection evidences a talent somewhat at sea by this example. Amusing but hardly on a par with his deep and melancholic poetry. He didn’t produce another volume of short stories nor a novel but did complete some children’s fiction and art criticism before returning to poetry in 1990. His comment in a interesting group of afterwords by the authors is oblique and not entirely convincing. He speaks of sudden fiction as ‘runtish’ which maybe sums up his feelings for it. I was no more convinced by his afterword than his story.
Far more significant is the development post 1986 (with the undoubted extra boost of the internet) of Sudden Fiction into Flash Fiction and the ensuing ‘movement’. A quick web search on ‘flash fiction’ shows that what was a curiosity in 1986 has bloomed into a veritable sea of algae with ‘Flash Fiction Day’, Competitions and even its own Wikipedia definition.
For what it’s worth it really isn’t anything more than very short pieces…rather than normal short stories. In my opinion it isn’t really a container for prose-poems that separate but can overlap if a poet feels it fits the term.
For me I come back to runtish….do I want to be a runt?
*Also the BASS (Best American Short Stories) 1986 edition edited by Carver probably a better place to look for where the entire short story was at this point.
This is the hardest Daily Short story so far. Not only have I never read Joy Williams before I also had no idea of her background so the interview above, which is excellent, has filled in the gaps. I started this Daily Shorts idea confidently expecting to read and comment on a short story a day. That seems unobtainable now. Maybe one every two days maximum is a better target. ‘Dimmer’ is a challenge from the get go. Long, maybe closer to a novella, and stylistically wonderful but breaking most creative writing workshop rules from the start. Thirty-eight pages (roughly) of galloping, imagistic and totally riveting prose in which the main P.O.V. character ‘Mal Vester’, as Daniel Alcorn says in his introduction above, never speaks.
It is a virtuoso performance by a skilled narrator at top of her game. A product of Iowa MFA, who was in the same year as Carver and Andre Dubus (she actually worked with Carver’s first wife Maryann as a waitress) it was for me a revelation. I instinctively, perhaps the Australian setting, thought of Nick Cave (another preacher’s offspring coincidentally) or rather I thought of Cave reading Williams which makes sense.
There is a luminosity to the writing. It is packed with images that haunt like the father’s boots ‘hanging’ way before we find out he hangs himself in prose which scrupulously accurate yet not sensationalist but conveys the ‘meat’ of the action. The mother’s death in a shark attack is conveyed in one line about a pool of blood, big as a paper plate, floating shore-ward nothing more perfectly capturing the moment.
It slowly builds a picture of a ‘simple’ boy growing into adulthood who too ‘feral’ for the small Australian town he orphaned in. He is an instinctive, animalistic individual, almost an ‘Enfant Sauvage’. In a blisteringly dry piece of writing he is shipped to America and encounters another female ‘Wild Child’ driving for a living before the story disappears along with the beach-side dwelling they occupy in a cloud of questions. The lack of resolution is well handled clouding our knowledge of who responsible for the child-man and perhaps suggesting that nobody ever was.
Online forums suggest many readers regard her story as ‘experimental’ and difficult which I didn’t really see although maybe the length as mentioned above is beyond short story maybe a ‘Long Short’. As the story was published by George Plimpton in 1969 it very early for Williams and I have yet to encounter her later collections of short stories or novels. It may be stylistically different for that reason. It certainly feels more modern than 1969 and, but for some of the flight cabin details, could have been written yesterday.
In the interview she is wonderfully dismissive and grumpy…
What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensi- bility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excel- lent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages. I read a story recently about a woman who’d been on the lam and her husband dies and she ends up getting in her pickup and driving away at the end, and it was all about fracking, damage, dust to the communities, people selling out for fifty thousand dollars. It was so boring.
She recommends DeLillo as truly ‘avant-garde’ and two Russian contemporary (I presume) authors as follows…
DeLillo is first among them. A writer of tremendous integrity and presence. Mao II is an American classic. So, too, is White Noise, though it’s been taught to splinters. His later works are fierce, demanding. His work can be a little cold perhaps. And what’s wrong with that? The cold can teach us many things. Coetzee I admire very much. On a lighter note, the Russians. Vladimir Sorokin and his crazy Ice trilogy. The short-story writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
I find her tone one I can trust and her involvement in Eco Politics and her ‘Earth First’ comments striking a chord. Ultimately she believes in a certain ‘transcendentalism’ but not one bound by a particular religion. She is beautifully wary of formula and ends thus…
Yes, yes. Freedom is most desirable. Of course none of us are free. Our flaws enslave us, the things we love. And through technology we’re becoming more known to everyone but ourselves. What’s that phrase about certain writers being what the culture needs? Most writers just write about what the culture recognizes.
Yesterday we were treated to a fine reading from selected authors in Jonathan Taylor’s 2013 anthology ‘Overheard’ as part of the Nottingham Festival of Words.
David Belbin, Claire Baldwin and editor Jonathan taylor himself read their stories and there was a brief discussion afterwards where Jonathan’s comments tallied nicely with neglected English Short Story master A.E.Coppard’s foreward to his Collected Stories from 1951. I have scanned the introduction and images below.
Interesting exercise came out of class last night. Hard to recall some of this and I genuinely cannot remember reading anything but web design manuals and music magazines for at least five years at NTU…scary..
This review has been revised. I felt it was too easy to criticise a writer on one piece of work with no ‘back-story’. I have done that and for me it didn’t get any better in fact….
Lionel Shriver – Killifi Creek
I have now re-read the original short story and I have flicked through a copy of ‘We need to talk about Kevin’. All I can say is I even uneasier and less impressed with the short story than before and the Kevin book..I read the last chapter to see what the tiresome hype on cover would reveal and…..well nothing. Sensationalist kid uses bow and arrows instead of a gun ending. Why god knows as if a kid in emotional distress would be organised and calm enough to fire a bow accurately in such a situation let alone massacre a group. The device of the kid deliberately setting a trap when the majority of these student shootings spur of the moment left me totally cold. No I will not read the book. It well written as in reporter turns writer well. We are however not talking Charles Dickens here.
Having read the few online interviews and Shriver’s ungracious arrogant acceptance speech for the Orange Prize which apparently is doing it for women everywhere by being as obnoxious as any man I can honestly say I actually dislike this writer and will not be reading her again.
The list of subjects she mentions in one gloriously ingratiating ‘interview’ with a ‘friend’ suggested that the author was retreading news stories as sensationalist fiction…Kevin was the only one that took. Take another minor news story (admitted to in interview) about a faulty bannister rail and a premeditated riffing on every wholesome middle class parents worst nightmare, the gap year fatality, and we have Killifi Creek (don’t you just love the way Kill in Killifi echoes the theme).
In purely writing terms the short story not bad I just read better and probably Shriver has written better. The cardboard cut-out Henleys don’t do it for me. They read like a typical ex-pat Yank who so British now but actually isn’t (tax reasons for spending half a year abroad?) with ‘ponytail’ man being just one of many false notes. The story is not factually accurate ..it derives ‘probably’ from a student drowning on the real Killifi BEACH..which totally sand as is ‘probably’ most of the nearby creek that nobody would swim in (let alone ‘Africans’as the story rather arrogantly and subtly racistly suggests) as the current too strong. All this I gleaned in ten minutes on the internet as did the author I am presuming. Way after the actual period she spent in Nairobi and yes I believe she may have visited the area but it doesn’t heighten the realism which Jilly Cooperish at times especially in the simpering sexuality misfires.
The panel chose a former Orange prize winner who high profile and bolshy..over the rest of a strong list thus rewarding arrogance over craft and ignoring better home-grown writers for the ‘British National’ award. Jon MacGregor didn’t make the shortlist which suggests that the judges listened to the radio abridgements rather than reading the actual story which has a marshmallow soft middle section which awful….drowning woman muses on mathematical equations yeah just like insane murderous teenagers choose Robin Hood as a role model…it just ain’t real to me. The abridgement is better which suggest the BBC back room better judges.
No matter the author well versed in publicity and PR rolls out for the BBC and all stakeholders including one presumes a heavyweight American publisher so everybody happy. It just the art of the short story that the loser…left high and dry up a creek without a paddle here unless you like your profundity ‘lite’.
For anybody seeking inspiration like Shriver’s at short notice when a competition deadline looming try looking at previous book covers by first-time novelists who you puffed in a previous Guardian book of the year special..never know it could help….better still ignore Shriver and read Pochada.
In 'Friendship: 12 masterpieces of short fiction' for John McCarthy, Ryan Publishing Co. Ltd; First Edition edition (1990)
Also collected in:
"A Foreign Dignitary,in Best Short Stories 1989, edited by GilesGordon and David Hughes. 1989; as The Best English Short Stories 1989, 1989.
Walking the Dog and Other Stories. 1994.
A tricky one this. I have read quite a few of MacLaverty’s stories but not this one and was unprepared for this particular tale. A lot of his shorts revolve around Northern Irish themes so the sudden departure to ‘Non-Place’ as one reviewer terms it a jolt. The tale was spun in 1988 and first published in The New Statesman which is significant. It was later anthologised in a best of and the collection ‘Walking the Dog’ from 1994. In 2002 MacLaverty submitted a radio script of the story to BBC Radio Scotland. I do not know if it was aired.
1988 was two years into John McCarthy’s captivity. It was also the year Bush elder started to run for presidency, the Soviets started to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran stopped fighting. If any of these turbulent events affected the author is unknown but the fact that it selected for the ‘Friendship’ anthology and first published in New Statesman suggests it an advowedly ‘political’ fable.
I say fable because it a strange story. A ‘foreign dignitary’ of the title, whose manners suggest British rather than European background or from any ‘Western’ power, arrives in a ‘foreign’ city. He is welcomed and entertained by his male counterparts and two events take place. He is offered a ‘virgin’ as a gift for his personal pleasure and he is shown a barbaric means of imprisoning political dissenters (including children) whilst all other crimes are dealt with by reason and discussion.
A Voltaire like political fable? The offering of the child is sickeningly simplistic and believable but the incarceration of political prisoners in steel coffins that repeatedly smashed with a hammer when they disobey is a little blunt to say the least. It like a written version of a Polish animation of a boot stamping on a head ad infinitum. The message clear. Maybe it was written with the hostage situation in Lebanon in mind but MacLaverty has enough political demons closer to his actual home to fuel the tale too. The title story of ‘Walking the Dog’ concerns a man abducted in Northern Ireland.
The story is unforgettable and striking and probably a one-off in his overall career. It skilfully sets up the reader through the mild-mannered Manadarin’s charming habit of writing a letter to his wife. This gentle introduction sets up the blunt horrors to come. As for the ‘other’. The sense of a slightly all-encompassing’heathen’ nature of the barbarians is just this side of racist suggesting a kind of people ‘not like us’ …i.e. Eastern,or Islamic. Nowhere is this stated but the contrast is clear. I think if the tale had not crashed to the rapid and circling conclusion as he quietly writes a letter home as the child is tortured it would have become to complex to succeed.
A short parable that leaves the reader puzzled, sickened and possibly relieved it not longer. I felt bemused after reading.
I had the idea of reading at least one short story a day. It sort of working and I have managed three so far this week. The first on Tuesday was Ron Hansen’s ‘Funland’ from ‘Nebraska’ a collection of short stories published in 1989. I purchased it at the time because of the cover which I later found out was a photograph by Wim Wenders. No apparent connection between the two artists just a lucky graphic design intervention I guess although film does connect to this story.
The collection contains a series of historical re-inventions or ‘factions’ that whilst starting from historical certainties and research lift off into unknown territories. The collection was published after several more ‘historically’ accurate novels including the ‘Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford’ now a movie with Brad Pitt. Hansen went on to write several novels on historical themes. He is now the Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J. Professor at Santa Clara University – San Francisco. Teaching fiction and screen-writing.
‘Playland’ is a classic case in point. When first read in 1990 with no internet there was no chance of quickly and easily searching out images (see above) from the ‘real’ Playland or reading anything about its existence. Now I can,and whilst not spoiling the story (which I read first), it does provide an intriguing backdrop and filter on the writer’s intentions. The theme park started life as a dog track run by gangsters after the second world war and this adds a sheen to the tale which revolves around an ‘innocent’ post-war couple. The story is seemingly set post or during WW2 as the cast mention various ‘Talkie’ stars like Peter Lorre and Betty Grable .
The introductory pages however create a ‘paradisical’ indeed a veritable Eden from the Depression created some time after 1918. This rather strange as the story suggests it long established as the story unfolds in a vaguely 1920s to 1950s neverworld, perhaps deliberately. The real Playland was a more humdrum affair built in the 1940s and probably a place Hansen visited as a child.
The exotic and unreal nature of the tale is heightened by the landing of a seaplane (just after a pelican!) carrying the ‘evil’ and rich protagonist. It is like something straight out of The Great Gatsby. He is the female ‘lead’s’ cousin (I say lead because the whole story so ‘filmic’) who is a sexual predator and the essential ingredient in the plot’s progression and the final denouement. The atmosphere suggests Hansen playing with the dreams rather than the reality of Nebraskan lives.The imagery and lighting throughout is so dreamlike the whole story could be read as existing on a film set.
The structure is straightforward. The ending slightly open-ended and bristling with perverse sexuality. A very good short story not quite as draw-dropping as the tour-de-force ‘Wickedness’ that opens the collection and was featured in Tobias Wolf’s Picador anthology of Contemporary American Stories in 1993 but still very good.
This short is a good read and suggests that ‘reality’ can be manipulated and used as suits even if twenty years later your reader can pick apart the reality from the imagined which affects all ‘faction’. Indeed where do we draw the line on historical authenticity and fiction these days when even historians questioning such notions? Is the image above any more real because sourced from the internet. it looks real but even that could have been created by an ingenious graphic designer..maybe that is the entrance to another theme park..or hell.
A review at the time is interesting noting the precision of the writing at its best and its sloppiness at worst…but marks Playland as one of the ‘bests’
What makes the violence in these stories so powerful and disturbing is Mr. Hansen's meticulous control of his prose. The action of his tales is always carefully grounded in a welter of precise description (hens sitting on their nests ''like a dress shop's hats''; ''goldfish with tails like orange scarves''; a man who ''chews gum instead of brushing his teeth''), and the language constantly engages us by moving back and forth between the colloquial and the poetic, between the understated and the brutal.