Mystery of unexplained

Border Lines

John Walsh
Doire Press, €12
Review: Afric McGlinchey

The main character in this collection is Ian, who in some stories is married to Sandra, in others, having an affair — or encounters — with Ellen. Or Denise. Or Deborah. Or Amy. He reminds me of the protagonist in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, the wind blowing him this way and that. He often appears to be compelled, in spite of himself, to accept invitations from random strangers, curious to see what will happen.

The stories gather to build on the reader’s sense of him, fragments that grow into a collage, giving both a geographical and psychological context. What’s interesting is the randomness of what’s included, the mystery of the unexplained, although hints appear in the stories about his childhood: ‘A Day like Today’, where his hero-worship of an uncle is evident, but the uncle lets him down; the beating he gets from his Da in ‘Jimi’. In fact, men in general let him down: in one story, he gets a lift from a truck driver, who expects him to masturbate him while he drives, as a form of thanks. The narrator feels he has no option but to comply.

Music is the young Ian’s passion. Inspired by his uncle, who plays in a band, he learns the guitar. He meets a stranger on a bus, who turns out to be a jazz musician, and whom he later meets again, along with their two girlfriends, for a strange and alcoholic evening full of innuendo (‘The Trumpet in the Towel’).

In ‘New Year’s Day’, a hitch-hiker gets a lift from a drunk driver. The drunk driver is Ian, but the protagonist in this case is the hitch-hiker, called Till. This is an interesting view, as we see Ian from a stranger’s perspective, a 23-year-old who comes from a different class. Ian is clearly older, and trusting, allowing the stranger to drive his car while he sleeps in the back. When they arrive in Galway after a long trip from the North, he offers Till a bed. But in this story, as in all of them, the contact ultimately fails.

In ‘Yesterday’s News’, the staccato noise of a rock breaking machine, the bins being emptied outside, penetrate a conversation that itself slips and slides, never gains a grip. It’s the everyday things that cause complications, that get the protagonist in a muddle, ‘tangled up again.’ This story most tangibly reveals the flawed nature of Ian’s attempts to manage his life. Until the final story, which loops back to the beginning, with a surprising dénouement and burst of energy, in a new geographical location. The chance of a leap in a different direction.

A subtle, gentle collection that leaves the reader thinking.