"Refugees" in Southern Humanities Review

I was delighted yesterday when I got my contributor's copy of Southern Humanities Review in the mail in which my story "Refugees" is included. Although the story was accepted two years ago and is included in my collection Interpreters, it's still nice to see it come out in print form again. In a nutshell, the story is about a family of North Korean refugees who come to Canada and the veracity of the story they tell to the narrator. What was a surprise to me when I was going over the proofs a few months ago was that the opening scene is quite a bit different from the one in the book. I forgot all about that earlier version, and now I'm not sure why I ever changed it in the first place. Anyway, I'm excited to see it out there in the bigger world. To order your copy, click here. And below is a cute promotional video for the newest issue.


Young Skins by Colin Barrett

Every once in a while there comes along a collection of stories that, from cover to cover, inspires, surprises, delights, and astounds me with what the short story is capable of doing.  All too often, many collections have only one or two such memorable stories, while the rest invariably disappoint.  I last felt that cover-to-cover wow factor last summer when I read Nancy Lee's Dead Girls. Before that it was Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, preceded by Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, Nam Le's The Boat, Michael Christie's The Beggar's Garden, and Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. Those were books that even after I had finished reading them continued to sit beside me on my desk and to which I frequently turned while working on my own stories in an attempt to determine the how of what they did. Recently I was floored again when I read Colin Barrett's Young Skins.

The six stories and one novella that make up the collection are set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Prior to my reading of this book, I'd always imagined Ireland to be a green, picturesque, yet slightly melancholic island, full of quaint little pub-filled towns and villages, green fields, and cows. There was always the invariable priest and the overarching influence of the church, and its citizens seemed to be a predominantly elderly and respectably poor lot: a notion influenced by all the Irish short fiction (especially William Trevor's) I've read over the years. Barrett, however, flips that idea on its head. Yes, there are tiny pub-filled villages and green fields, but this is a much more gritty Ireland (or, more specifically, a small town near the west coast) consisting of the seriously down and out, people living on "estates" and where those pubs are less charming than they are indicative of the poverty in which these people live and the boredom of their lives. Barrett's Ireland is an ugly place, full of midges that feed on people's heads and contain all the usual and recognizable things that make up an increasingly globalized world. It's also a place in which the young, as the narrator states in the opening story "The Clancy Kid," have the run of the place (1)--these "young skins" with their tattoos and earlobe-stretched earrings, their drugs that they shoot, snort or smoke, their ADHD and autism. And instead of that pernicious and ever-present choke-hold of Roman Catholicism, both priest and church are conspicuously absent, replaced instead by a menacing and anarchic violence. Interesting, too, to note are the unusual couplings that also seem emblematic of the topsy-turvy state of things: Fannigan, a 50-year-old unmarried man who lives with his mother and attempts to rape a 14-year-old girl; Marlene, a single-mom who lives with her "consenting, pragmatic" (4) mother, the latter thinking nothing of her daughter bringing men home; Hector and Paudie, two unmarried brothers who live together (and happen to run a grow-op out of their farm); and Dympna, simultaneously adored by his "coven" (86) of sisters yet tainted by the "persistent low rumours that suggested he fucked [them]" (105).  And like the priests, fathers are also missing here. Nearly everyone's "da" has long been in the ground, or just not there.

But what captures and inspires me most about these stories is the language. Barrett has a unique and inimitable style that mixes the arcane with the vulgar, the formal with the crass, blended too with the many colloquialisms unique to Ireland. I turn to a page at random, and here is what I find. From the story "Bait", listen to this:

Music chugged from the open door of a parked car and there were tinnies and smokes as those to shift were determined and paired off. Shifting was a curiously bloodless, routinised ritual, involving lengthy arbitration by the friends of the prospective pairings, who, as in arranged marriages, did not so much as get to say hello until they were shoved into each other's arms and exhorted to take the dark walk into the maw of the woods. There, with that hello barely exchanged, each couple would find a sheltering bole to lean against or beneath, and commence their bodily negotiations. (20)

As the above illustrates, there's no pared-down minimalist prose here; rather Barrett is unafraid to do the opposite, to write in what he called in a recent Paris Review interview a "maximalistic" style. It's refreshingly unique and exciting.

In addition, Barrett seldom employs boring linking verbs like "was," "seem," or "got". Nearly every Barrett sentence cracks, pops, and sizzles--not to mention surprises--with an energy that I've only ever seen before in someone like Denis Johnson. Again, listen to this passage, and notice how every verb (and adjective too) is a vibrant and animated thing:

Fandango's was a hot box. Neon strobed and pulsed, dry ice fumed in the air. Libidinal bass juddered the windowless walls. I was sinking shots at the bar with Dessie Roberts when she crackled in my periphery. She'd already seen me and was swanning over. We exchanged bashful smiles, smiles that knew exactly what was coming. (4)

The stories that make up Young Skins are generally linear in structure with little back story, focusing on the here-and-now of these characters' lives and the situations they find themselves in. In my own stories I have a tendency for resolution, a need to tie all the knots, as it were (which is probably why I tend to write such lengthy stories); but Barrett demonstrates that that is not always necessary. "The Clancy Kid," for example, at first seems to meander aimlessly, going from the bar in which the narrator and his friend Tug drink and theorize about the missing Clancy kid, to tipping over Marlene's fiance's car, to crossing an unrepaired footbridge "guarded" by a trio of children. What is this story about? I began to wonder at some point. But it's in the sudden ending in which the narrator, once safely across the bridge, turns around and sees that "the children are gone" (18), that the story unexpectedly and poignantly (and somewhat ineffably) answers that question and what the Clancy kid represents, sadly foretelling too how little will change in the lives of these characters. Young Skins is a powerful and inspiring collection, one that will sit next to me at my desk as I continue to work on my own stories for some time to come. If you have a collection of stories that similarly blew you away from cover to cover, I'd love to hear of it.

Denton Welch (March 29, 1915 - December 30, 1948)

Like a lot of people who might be familiar with the work of Denton Welch, my first "encounter" with him was his oft-anthologized story "When I Was Thirteen."  I came across the story in Alberto Manguel and Craig Stephenson's anthology Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest: Gay Stories from Alice Munro to Yukio Mishima.  The story is about a thirteen-year-old boy (probably some time in the 1920s) on vacation in a ski resort in Switzerland.  While his older brother goes out to spend the day on the slopes with friends, the narrator is left behind at the hotel and develops something of a hero-worship fantasy for a university student who also happens to be staying at the resort.  I loved the story for evoking such vivid details--the taste of hot chocolate after a day out in the cold, the French pastries, the warmth of a feather bed, getting into the same bath water the university student had just sat in.  I remember thinking how accurately Welch could capture certain images and sensations of early adolescence that I realized I had forgotten, and I loved how homosexual desire is never explicitly stated, but is an undercurrent throughout the story (as it is in much of his fiction).  I made a mental note to further explore his work one day.

A few years passed, and I can't remember what I was working on, but last summer I decided to read what Manguel describes as "one of his best works," In Youth Is Pleasure, and again I was charmed and fascinated by this little-known British writer.  I went on to read I Left My Grandfather's House and The Stories of Denton Welch, a collection of twenty-six of his stories and, more recently, his incomplete (but definitely best) novel, A Voice through a Cloud

When I read, I tend to underline passages I like, but with Welch I find it hard to know when to put the pencil down.  Listen to this, for example:

Since his last visit to me, I saw him always as a lost dog, forlorn, harassed, with an unenticing hint of danger that made one wish to get away from him.  What warned one against him before he had opened his mouth?  Was it the eyes staring, then circling?  The badly related hand and leg movements?  The scheming that was so obvious that one had a fancy of steaming, churning thoughts bubbling up against the walls of a glass skull?

Or this:

Soon afterwards Mrs. Talbot struggled up from her low deck chair to say good-bye.  Standing on those fragile black-silk legs she looked very tottery and ancient; but there was a great lump of pride and malevolence behind her pale little eyes, and I thought that it was this lump which was her driving force.  Insolent pride and ill-will carried her through the day, kept her from dying, from melting into nothing.  I thought that each year to come would make the little beady eyes clearer and paler, until they were nothing but two sucked acid drops.  All colour would drain out of her, leaving only the pure venom. 

Wow!  These two passages come from "Brave and Cruel," a story I ironically felt was not among his best (in fact, many of his stories don't always entirely work as stories), yet for me it almost doesn't matter because with Welch the prose is so stellar--and fresh, too, not at all sounding like they were written more than seventy years ago. 

When I was reading A Voice through a Cloud, again and again I kept underlining short passages and phrases, and surprising word choices, so much so that much of my copy is dirtied with pencil markings.  But here's a passage that has long stayed with me for its haunting beauty:

There were some birds at night beyond the garden.  Behind their hard cymbal clashes or sad flute sounds I used to hear the far-away moping of the sea and then the fitful barking of a dog.  I would imagine his cry coming across the fields, the brimming icy ditches and the bare hedges glittering with black drops of water.  Perhaps it came from some lonely farm where he was chained up in a cobbled yard.  The chain would grate and clink like a ghost's as he ran from side to side, barking and waiting for the answer which never came.  At last his tail would curve down through his legs and he would huddle back into the dank straw of his barrel. 
     I wrote about the night bird cries, the sea sounds and the lonely barking, and I liked what I wrote in flashes; but something was wrong with it.  There is always something wrong with writing.  So I tore the paper up at last, liking the untouched memory so much better, not wanting it forced into the insincerity of words.

It really is stunning: the dog's chain clinking like a ghost's, and then the ironic, "There's always something wrong with writing."  The phrase comes to me often as I sit at my desk frustrated.

I can't find the passage right now, but I remember being struck by a simple sentence that went something like this, "I turned away, shirking the difficult task of having to say something about the painting"; and I thought that had I written that I would have said something much more dull, like, "I turned away, not wanting to say anything about the painting."  It's little things like this that make his prose so memorable and beguiling, and layered, containing in that seldom-used word "shirk" a hint of judgment.   

Welch's fiction is very autobiographical, and so as I read through his work, I couldn't help feeling like I got to know someone very closely, not just his thoughts and idiosyncratic worldview, but also his neuroses and obsessions, his desires, his history: there's his childhood in China, his art school years in London, his later years in the British countryside.  In a weird way (and I'm not sure what this says about me) but never have I read a writer with whom I felt such kinship.  Before Welch ventured into fiction writing, he originally wanted to become a painter (his work, which often adorns the covers of his books, is somewhat mediocre), but at the age of twenty, while riding his bike one day in south London, he was struck by a car and spent the rest of his life--the next thirteen years--convalescing.  Unable to paint, he turned to writing and in the remainder of his life produced an amazing volume of work.  The nearly complete A Voice through a Cloud was written at the very end of his life when he was in a great deal of pain and could often work on it for no more than a few minutes at a time.  Welch died in 1948 at the age of 33, a shame that someone with such obvious talent should pass away so early and in such obscurity.  This Sunday, March 29th, marks one hundred years since Welch's birth, and I wonder: will Denton Welch societies (if there is such a thing; there's a Denton Welch website, but it's been under construction for years) commemorate the anniversary with readings and speeches?  Will there be radio documentaries on Welch the way there were for Barbara Pym in 2013 on the 100th anniversary of her birth? Or will I alone sit at my kitchen table with a cupcake and a lit candle stuck in it, reflecting on the work of this most remarkable writer?