Mr Jolly is Michael Stewart’s first collection of short stories, a new route for him after the publications of thriller novels King Crow and Cafe Assassin.
Each and every story is beautifully crafted, oddly tender and somewhat unsettling. The anthology begins with ‘The League’, which, true to Stewart’s fashion, has an excellent opening line – “The bald men are gathering outside my gate.” ‘The League’ continues in both an equally absurd and frightening manner, filled with unusual similes and archaic terminology, and presents us with a unique social commentary on modern life and the idea of ‘fitting in.’ It’s certainly an old commentary, yes, one that’s been done a thousand times before and will be done a thousand times moreover, but Stewart manages to make it interesting, a good read with the feeling that it’s over all too soon.
From there on, the stories seem to have less purpose, but definitely not in a bad way. There’s no social commentary, they’re simply written to be told, to be enjoyed and to be pondered. They focus on human relationships with each other, with the world, with life and death, and, in one particularly amusing story, with God. It’s not often you get to read an interaction with a poor, insignificant man trying to tell God he’s not allowed to smoke indoors.
My favourite was, perhaps, ‘The Butterfly on the Ceiling’. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m not even entirely sure what happened. But it was weird and it was wonderful and I loved it very much. The conversation between Mary and Claire. The bread. The dead butterfly. It was like reading performance art. It was certainly beautifully written and incredibly touching. It left me with a knot in my stomach. It was funny and disconcerting and a personal highlight – the story I’ll make my friends read before letting them borrow the book.
This is an anthology that you dip into. It’s heavy and haunting, and each story will stay with you for a long time after you’ve finished it. It’s a series to be savoured: each piece needs its own moment to shine, to be the story you appreciate and focus on. Some are much more powerful than others – whilst ‘The Butterfly on the Ceiling’ was the standout story for me on all levels, ‘The Black Man and the White Man’ was also incredibly hard-hitting, and ‘You Are Going Back’ was the most emotional. If you read Mr Jolly in one sitting, not only will it thoroughly depress you, but you’ll lose some of the stories in the midst of the more dominant ones, which would be a true shame as each is just as valuable as the last.
Any Cop?: Mr Jolly is a tremendous collection. It was wonderful and weird from start to finish. Michael Stewart has crafted a refreshing series that revitalises the short story. He’s already proved his talent by winning the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker’ Prize, but now he’s proved his range. I look forward to his next publication; it couldn’t come soon enough.