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Saturday, June 16, 2012
Dancing in the Asylum
Review: Liam Heylin
A smell of stale cigarette smoke, sweat and sour wine rises from the pages of Galway-based, Belfast-born writer, Fred Johnston’s new book of short stories.
After one of many loveless encounters is anatomised, Johnson writes: "The room murmured with the odours of stale wine and cigarettes, the lost incense of all rooms of love." But that observation in the last story in the collection is just one of many which is permeated by acrid smells. Not for Johnston the smell of freshly mown hay or baked bread. This is a writer who actively sniffs out the seamier side of life.
His eye for detail is similarly stern and unforgiving. The title story of the collection throws us into some kind of sanatorium where the narrator appears to be an alcoholic becoming aware of the unspecified domestic violence he has left behind. It is a tough tale with a beady eye for the minutiae of an institutional setting as a backdrop for one man’s demons.
The narrator’s unfaithfulness to his wife in the second story operates more at the level of a parable where the person telling the story is himself a writer whose truck with his imaginary characters takes the form of illicit rendezvous.
The strongest story in the collection, oddly enough, is one which catches the fragility of the characters most successfully. Collateral Damage’s narrative voice is that of a young woman unceremoniously leaving her council flat for a house in a new council estate. She arrives in this house with her baby in an atmosphere which is not downright hostile but is never any better than merely provisional. Her boyfriend arrives home from a day’s work at the army barracks to say that he is about to be sent on a tour of duty overseas.
The next story returns to the jaundiced perspective of a middle-aged man washed up by life and washed out of any real sympathy. He is working in some kind of community support centre but his disposition makes him unable to support himself much less any misfortunate appearing at his desk. At the beginning of this one it feels like he might relax the whip-hand on the strident tone of the other stories but not even here are we offered light relief.
The narrators of the last three stories have in common that they are gay but what pervades the stories is a squalid and joyless inertia, whether it is the woman at the medieval music festival, the painter at the opening of his own exhibition or the middle-aged man bringing home the young man in order to feel alive by arguing with him rather than anything more physical.
These stories are not the happiest places imaginable and Johnston creates them with an almost feverish sense of detail upon detail.
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