No sooner had we pounded through Kevin Barry’s Town & Country: New Irish Short Stories, than Alan McMonagle’s second collection, Psychotic Episodes, dropped onto our doormat, making the first half of 2013 something of a Hibernian story-fest chez Bookmunch. We haven’t encountered McMonagle before, though we’ve since learned that his first book, Liar, Liar, was longlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and that he’s also won and been shortlisted for a whole rake of short fiction prizes for individual stories: all in, we think you’d do well to keep an eye on him in the future. In the meantime, though, what about this book?
Nineteen stories long (though some of them are pretty short), Psychotic Episodes is a fairly sizeable collection, particularly compared to the eight-to-twelve piece-long efforts we tend to encounter. McMonagle’s style struck us as darkly comic, or bitterly tragic, or lovingly miserable with a good dollop of the peculiar thrown in, and he’s quite consistent throughout; although some of the stories are a touch more lyrical and serious, and others are more obviously and broadly comic, overall, they’ve got in common a dry, knowing commentary, and an orality that seems to hark back to the seanachaí, if that’s not to make too twee a reference. He’s got a keen ear for dialogue, and his child and teenage characters have a world-weary old-man-who’s-seen-too-much vibe to their catalogue of observations on the world and on their parents, which makes them both funny and realistic—there’s no faux-naivety in sight, nor any hint of condescension. While his children are put-upon and prematurely wrung out, his adults are hapless and floundering: the kids have plans and agendas, and the grown-ups are swimming against the tide.
Thematically, particular topics and tropes pop up more than once: bereavement and grief, single-parent families, teenage sexuality, lonely kids, parent-child relationships (mother-son bonds in particular), the lure of distant travel and (oddly) bicycle road accidents. Most of the narrators are male, and most of them are yearning for something (or more usually, someone) lost, whether it’s a parent, a sibling, a friend or a lover; a desire for renewed or regained human connection permeates these stories in a deeply poignant way. A stand-out in this respect are ‘Bleeding Boy’, the hero of which has lost his mother and lusts after a bikini-clad older woman (also a mother) who lives down his street; his sexual desire, though, is shot through with maternal loss and mourning in such a powerful way that the last paragraph is a proper heart-breaker. ‘The Spanish Arch Whores’ has something of Jesus’ Son-era Denis Johnson about it, as a pair of drugged-up penny philosophers, Tim and Duffy, reminiscent of Fuckhead and his cronies, wander about Galway at night, washing up on a foggy pier and hallucinating as a girl jumps past them to her probable death. The sadness of the stories is often couched in a deceptive layer of humour that drifts close to flippancy, so that it’s only afterwards that the proper emotion kicks in; the opener, Looking After Little Patrick, is a superb example of this, couching its narrator’s deep unhappiness in a casual jaunty style that only snaps around on the very last page.
Flaws? If we wanted to get massively pedantic, we’ve got to admit that the style of punctuation in the book was hugely irksome, with commas and periods being placed outside quotation marks throughout, and whether that’s a quirk of Arlen House or McMonagle, we weren’t best pleased at the sigh of it. But that’s petty, right? It doesn’t affect the quality of the stories. On a more serious level, we think a touch more variety in the style and theme of the stories wouldn’t have gone astray; but, on the flipside, the book has a coherency that you often don’t get in a collection. The strength of McMonagle’s work is in the contrast between the casual banter of his words and the sheer and deep emotion beneath. His prose is simply written: if you’re after the elegance of an Updike, you won’t find it here, but what you will find is layered stories that will linger considerably longer than you might have initially expected.
Any Cop?: It’s a good read, but he’s got a distinct prose style, so it’s a matter of taste. If you like it, you’re laughing, and if you don’t, you’ll get frustrated. We realise, of course, that this isn’t much help to the indecisive reader, but there you have it. A quirky, touching, funny and heartbreaking (if a little thematically repetitive) collection, from an Irish up-and-comer. Quietly powerful.