‘Diverse in style and tone’ – Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails ed. Philip O Ceallaigh

The Stinging Fly is an Irish literary magazine dedicated to publishing new and emerging writers, both Irish and international, with a particular focus on the short story. It’s been published three times a year since 1998; past issues have included writers like Emma Donoghue and Toby Litt.  As well as the magazine, they also run a publishing imprint, The Stinging Fly Press, and Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails is their latest short story anthology.  It’s edited by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, himself the author of two collections, The Pleasant Light Of Day and Notes From A Turkish Whorehouse.  Ó Ceallaigh lives in Bucharest, and for this anthology he’s selected a range of authors based not just in Ireland, but in the United States, Romania and Serbia, amongst others.  There’s no discernible theme to the stories, unless it’s a certain narrative despondency, with most of the main characters having lost their ways, their families, their loves or their homes.  Neither are the authors matched in terms of reputation or publishing record – there’s a real mix here, from younger, up-and-coming talents like Colin Barrett and Benjamin Arda Doty, to more recognisable names like Kevin Barry and Julian Gough.

As you might expect from Ó Ceallaigh, it’s a strong collection, featuring distinctive voices and more than a few names I’ll expect to be hearing more from in the future.  I didn’t enjoy everything –  of Alex Epstein’s five pieces of flash fiction, for instance, I liked Time War and More on the Return Of Odysseus, but felt that the inclusion of all five stories was a nod to the rising reputation of flash fiction rather than the best samples of the form that they might have had in the slush pile.  Ó Ceallaigh says in his introduction that ‘some of [the stories], certainly, show more ambition that others’; this seemed to me an odd sort of half-hearted comment with which to preface his choice, and I’d question why he included pieces that he thought were less accomplished.  There were definitely pieces in there that I thought unnecessary (Luke Woods’ Stag is about a drunken stag night that ends in a strip-joint featuring dwarves; there was little originality to interest or engage me there, though it’s fluidly written), but, as always in an anthology, what suits one reader won’t suit the next.  And of course, ambition doesn’t necessarily equate to accomplishment – some of the more traditional stories (this is how I tentatively interpreted Ó Ceallaigh’s ‘lesser ambition’), like David Mohan’s Some Facts About Sonora, were among the best in the collection, while some of the more tongue-in-cheek efforts didn’t seem like they’d stand the test of time.  Julian Gough’s Tiger, Tiger was very clever and it made me laugh, but it seemed ephemeral compared to Mohan’s more human story.  Nevertheless, Ó Ceallaigh says that he picked stories that displayed freshness and clarity, and these are certainly qualities that shine through in most of the stories here, regardless of personal taste about style and content: the talent on display is undeniable and it’s a very enjoyable collection.

The opening story, Madeleine D’Arcy’s Waiting For the Bullet,  was one of my favourites; a domestic setting, a failing marriage, an awful dinner party, and a fake gun – all leading to an impossible game of Russian Roulette.  It’s short and understated, but D’Arcy captures the social tensions of the situation perfectly.  Kevin Barry’s The Girls And The Dogs was excellent – as I’d expected – a melancholy and hilarious story of a  drug dealer on the run, who ends up locked in a caravan by an erstwhile colleague and his pair of peculiar girlfriends.  The final piece, Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Yellow Handbag, is a heartbreaking story about Ashok, an Indian driver estranged from his Irish wife and daughter, chauffeuring a nostalgic old lady around Dublin.  The changing city-scape and his disintegrating personal life come together beautifully, and the final image – Ashok bowling his mobile phone into the long grass of the Phoenix Park – is remarkably poignant.

There were a few stories I wasn’t keen on, although, like those above, all of them were written with style and nuance.  I had mixed feelings about Emily Firetog’s The Boys, in which a gay son returns to his childhood home after his schizophrenic brother’s suicide.  There’s plenty to like – the complex relationships between the son, his lover and his grieving and prejudiced father are well-drawn and compelling; it’s understated, yet realistically emotional. And yet the story itself felt unsatisfying – more like an excerpt from a longer piece than a fully-rounded story in itself.  It was resonant, yet unfinished.  Likewise, Brian Kirk’s The Girl In The Window is well-written and the main character’s story – his disaffection with his colleagues and his career – is realistic and touching.  But his emotional wake-up call hinges around a motif, a cipher – an anonymous woman  who undresses in a window across from his office – and that, for me, was a little too convenient.  Gerry McCullough’s Giving Up, about an alcoholic’s relationship with his friends and his children, verges on the unsubtle – it’s very sad, but also predictable as it unfolds and everything goes from bad to worse for the narrator.

Any Cop? These aren’t huge complaints.  It’s a very good collection and I’d recommend it.  It’s diverse in style and tone, and, as clichéd as it sounds, there’s potential for both laughing and crying here.  I like the mix of familiar and newer writers, and I’ll be checking out The Stinging Fly‘s back-catalogue for their previous anthologies, as well as hunting down further works by many of the featured writers.  Thumbs up.

Valerie O’Riordan

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