‘Downbeat scenes of cold flats, art gallery openings and stag parties’ – Ten Stories about Smoking by Stuart Evers

There is at least one good reason to cheer the publication of Stuart Evers’ debut collection of short stories, Ten Stories about Smoking, that does not depend on the quality of the writing. It’s heartening to see a major publisher, Picador no less, investing so seriously in a collection from a British writer with the resolve normally shown to publishing the work of American short story writers such as Wells Tower and David Means. This is a collection of stories that should be celebrated (even if there is little celebratory in his downbeat scenes of cold flats, art gallery openings and stag parties) for being published at all (instead of appearing in a few years between novels). 

Wells Tower and David Vann provide kind words of praise on the packaging of this book (the book comes inside a box shaped like a cigarette pack, which would have caused an accountant at Picador sleepless nights at the additional expense but is an admirable declaration of support for the writer). However, the writing doesn’t entirely live up to such company, at times it is as blatant a mismatch as anything seen in the early rounds of the FA Cup. Occasionally the language and description in the stories struggles to rise above the conventional, in one story characters travel “at the earliest available opportunity”, using such a cliché indicates how stories sometimes move forward with the minimum of effort and it’s hard to excuse any writer willing to use such a hackneyed phrase (something you won‘t find Wells Tower doing).

However, that’s the only slight criticism because the ten stories demonstrate real emotional depth, the range of characters is imaginative (he writes a story about a New York boxing coach that skillfully withholds its punch line until its characters are fully drawn) and he has ambition. These stories capture the way people really speak, the way they tell the story of their lives (and how the story often revolves around a single tragedy that comes to dominate that life). His stories are universal in their fears and disasters, though particularly universal for anyone who lives in East London.

Smoking is the unifying motif in the ten stories, it serves as a symbol of the destructiveness at the heart of his character’s lives and creates an air (quite literally in the particularly haunting story ’Things Seem So Far Away, Here’) around an individual that smells of loss and desperation, a stain that undermines any chance they may have of change (as one character admits, smoking is “a very slow kind of suicide“). Not all the stories are equally vivid, ‘What’s in Swindon’ is the fictional equivalent of a weekend in the town of the title but ‘Eclipse‘ and ‘Real Work’ would even be worth the expense of buying them from a vending machine in a pub.

If you need one reason to buy Ten Stories about Smoking then it is the final story, ‘The Final Cigarette’, the parallel stories of two dying fathers and their sons. Throughout the book there is a Raymond Carver influence (which is the second reason to buy this book) and the reader comes to realise that one of the fathers in the story is a fictional portrait of Carver himself. Carver thinks about his smoking, how it has served to help his writing (unlike his drinking that threatened to destroy his work) while in a South London hospital a father dying of cancer can only find moments of connection with his son as they smoke in the hospital grounds. Carver thinks of his smoking, “no matter how bad the day, you could come home and smoke one and it might just feel that the world wasn’t such a terrible place after all”. Finding hope in unlikely places is a very Carver-esque ability and any writer that is comfortable enough to place his own stories next to those of Carver should be read.

Any Cop?: There is enough confidence, ambition and depth of characterisation here to make you read these stories for themselves, instead of waiting for Stuart Evers to produce a novel.

James Doyle

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