“A discovery” – Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing by Robin McLean

IMG_2022-11-29-213621That still small electric hush you get when you read someone new that excites you. It’s a good and rare feeling, isn’t it? Doesn’t happen all that often. Doesn’t even happen once in a year sometimes. Time can pass until you think maybe you’re too old to feel that feeling any more. And then – like the quiet hum of a turbine starting up – there it is.

I’d not heard of Robin McLean before. Her first two books – a novel, Pity the Beast, and another book of short stories, Reptile House – passed me by completely. That’s just the way of things, sometimes, isn’t it? You can’t keep track of everything now, can you?

Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing is a book of short stories, then. 10 stories with titles like ‘But for Herr Hitler’ and ‘Pterodactyl’ and ‘Judas Cradle’ and ‘Cliff Ordeal’. If those titles conjure up the likes of Cormac McCarthy, say, or Dennis Johnson or Thom Jones for that matter, well, those would be useful comparisons, but only in so much as McLean has a stark, spare style of writing and a wilful obtuseness at times that suggests she’s looking to provoke as much as entertain.

Let’s circle a spell, will we? There are moments in these stories where (to follow that still small electric hush to its logical conclusion) the writing feels like a powerful charge and details accumulate in such a way as to make you feel like time is being passed hand over hand like the rope in a tug of war:

“He saved his allowance in a sock. She peeked out a steel restroom door to watch him hide the sock in the trunk, beneath the sack of cash, beneath the spare, smoky breath at his mouth. He hogged the covers every night, stacked all the pillows behind him. He thinned and ate and grew in sudden growth spurts. He paid close attention to the dials and pedals, sat behind the steering wheel when Auntie pumped gas. He learned to pump gas. He learned to use the jack, fit the lug wrench, change a tire.”

These are stories you are inside of. Certain stories here feel like novels in themselves. The opener, for instance, the aforementioned ‘But for Herr Hitler’, about a couple who buy themselves some land and then wrestle with illness as the years go by. It’s a good introduction to the book because everything that is good and everything that is puzzling about Robin McLean’s stories is contained in miniature right up front. No one is trying to sucker punch you. All of the mystery and the beauty walks hand in hand.

So there are stories that run like pop songs, for the most part. ‘True Carnivores’, for instance, which we quoted from above, which concerns a child abducted by an Auntie and taken across country for years. Similarly ‘Cliff Ordeal’ (man stuck on cliff side). Similarly ‘House Full of Feasting’ (young couple decide, in a squirrelly Crime and Punishment sort of way, to off their landlord). These are stories you’ll read thinking, is this the best collection of stories I’ve read since Jesus’ Son?

But. But but but but but but but. You know how I said the comparison with Denis Johnson or Cormac McCarthy were only useful up to a point? There are stories here I can’t quite get to the bottom of. Stories that have me puzzling over them. Stories in which things happen that I can’t work out. Ambiguities and abstractions. Infuriating things if truth be told – but (but but but but but) – I want to get to the bottom of them. I’m not put off by McLean’s sleights of hand. I’m not alienated by the confusion she sometimes presents me with. I’m thrilled. It’s like talking to someone brighter than me. I know if I put the time in, at some point I’ll be brighter too and I like that feeling.

And we’d go as far to say as there is something kindly in McLean’s ordering. Each time she takes you out there, right to the tippermost tip of your comprehending, she brings you back with a story like ‘Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing’, or whacks you literally upside your head with a tale like ‘Alpha’.

This is a book that you’ll read once and pop on your shelf with the intention of returning to it. Reading these stories is like mining for gold. There is gold, easy to see, clear as the light as day. And there are stories that make you feel, if I put the time in, there’s gold here too. Growers not show-ers, as we used to say about album tracks in the old days.

All told, Robin McLean feels like a discovery to us and we can’t wait to read her other books and see what she does next.

Any Cop?: If you like short stories, if you don’t need everything laying out on a plate for you, if you like to sometimes spend time in the company of a book that doesn’t reveal all of its treasures straight away, Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing is a rare treat.

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