Rob Redman, the man behind The Fiction Desk blog, has branched out into publishing with this new anthology, the first of a projected quarterly series. It’s a set of twelve new short stories from a variety of authors (the clue’s in the title), some of whom are pretty established (Danny Rhodes, Charles Lambert) and others more up-and-coming. And, as you might expect from a new venture like this, it’s a mixed bag. A few of the pieces I found a little underdeveloped or lightweight; several others were very polished and moving. There’s comedy, tragedy and surrealism in here; a glut of failed marriages and dreadful parents, thwarted ambition and longing. And, you know, a man in a dogs costume and a village of clones…
Starting with the stories I wasn’t so keen on: the first two pieces, Lynsey May’s ‘Two Buses Away’ and Harvey Marcus’s ‘How To Fall In Love With An Air Hostess’ weren’t the strongest of the selection, though May’s piece, about a young man who discovers that his parents have separated, does packs a real emotional punch. Her descriptions of the father’s house, the run-down neighbourhood and the eponymous buses are great, as is her tone of miserable boredom and shock. But I felt the story read less like a self-contained piece and more like the opening to something longer; there wasn’t much follow-through on the narrative arc – it seemed a little truncated and, though it was unsettling, it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied. Marcus’s piece is a comedic instruction manual for how to approach an attractive air hostess, should you happen to meet one on a train; in both its theme and its use of the second person narrative, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Junot Diaz’s superb ‘How To Date A Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl or Halfie)’ (and if you haven’t read that one already, please rectify the situation immediately). Only, Marcus’s story is less consistent in holding the imperative voice, and occasionally slips into an interior monologue that’s not as carefully detached as the voice in first paragraph. It’s a funny story, but I think it would probably be at its best read aloud; on the page, it’s neither as controlled or engaging as Diaz’s piece, and unfortunately for Marcus, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two. Ben Lyle’s ‘Crannock House’ is about an alcoholic teacher and the student who befriends and then abandons him; it’s full of guilt and disappointment and observations about class and propriety and pedagogy, but ultimately it’s pretty predictable. Alex Cameron’s ‘The Puzzle’ is an intelligent and well-observed piece about an elderly art dealer who’s hidden some unethical dealings and now languishes, dying, in a nursing home, when his past catches up with him; the central conceit of the jigsaw puzzle felt a little laboured to me, though – there’s a cloak-and-daggers element to it (a mysterious stranger brings a mysterious package; the character must literally put the pieces together) that I didn’t enjoy. Matthew Licht’s ‘Dave Tough’s Luck’ is about an aging percussionist who takes as a student a disabled kid with a gift for the drums. It’s a sad story about wilful misunderstanding and failed ambition, but there wasn’t as much of an arc to it as I’d have liked; the kid, Andy, isn’t unduly affected by his parents’ meanness, and the narrator-teacher is left, at the end, in much the same position as when he started. But the voice is distinctive and there’s a good rhythm to the prose that matches the jazzy themes.
Now to the stories I particularly liked. Jon Wallace’s ‘Rex’ is startling and hilarious; the main character’s wife brings home a dog that’s actually a method actor playing a dog. Though she’s taken in by his performance, her husband isn’t, and the three of them have to somehow negotiate a life together if her depression isn‘t to return. It’s funny and touching and sad – kind of like Craig Gillespie’s film, Lars And The Real Girl – and it’s one of my favourites in the collection. Danny Rhodes’s ‘A Covering of Leaves’ is equally odd, though sad and poignant rather than funny: a mourning widower finds himself following a driverless car ten years into the past. Jason Atkinson’s ‘Assassination Scene’ is a slow-burner; his narrator is unhappy in his job and his marriage – so far, so mundane – and then he gets the chance to try out for a part in an amateur production of Julius Caesar. The eponymous assassination scene, the final scene in the story, is the best ending I’ve read in ages. Patrick Whittacker’s ‘Celia and Harold’ is a Twilight Zone-esque study in creepiness, as a businessman finds himself stranded in a village where everybody looks the same. Charles Lambert’s ‘All I Want’ is an excellent study of repressed sexual and marital dissatisfaction, cultural displacement and general ennui, set in Lake Garda. Ben Cheetham’s ‘Sometimes The Only Way Out’ Is In is the longest story in the book; here, a little boy runs away from home when it looks like he’ll be sent back into care after his mother’s latest breakdown. Clutching an old photograph of his long-gone father, with only his imaginary friend for company, he tries to find his way to Wales and happiness, but it’s not as straightforward as he expects. Filled with unexpected kindnesses as well as the usual urban dirt and threats, this is a touching and painful story, as young Finn embarks on his hopeless quest. Finally, Adrian Stumpp’s Christmas story about fatherhood and fear and hope, ‘Nativity’, is witty and bitter and anxious and insightful; it’s a fantastic end to the anthology, and it’s left me googling Mr Stumpp to find more of his work.
Any Cop?: Like I said, it’s not perfect – some of the stories are considerably stronger than others – but there’s enough very good titles here to make it worth the money and to make me curious to see what’ll be in the next Fiction Desk volume.