Living on the edge

Psychotic Episodes
Alan McGonagle
Arlen House

Psychotic Episodes is the second short-story collection from award-winning Sligo-born author, Alan McGonagle.

True to its title, the subject matters of the stories are serious and often devastating. Several deal with the loss of innocence and children forced to deal with adult situations.

In ‘Bleeding Boy’, the narrator buries his sorrow at the death of his own mother in the sexual idealisation of the other mothers of the neighbourhood. As in several of the stories in Psychotic Episodes, what begins as light-hearted uncovers pain and damage underneath. The first story in the collection is typical: the whimsy of a couple’s babysitting is unravelled in one heartbreaking sentence in reference to the son they never had. “And, later again, in the soundless hours, when we catch ourselves not sleeping, and we ask each other where on earth he could be on this quiet night, it’s then that it hits us: that though he never cries, he has our hearts broken.”

Premature loss of innocence is also dealt with in ‘Beside Titan’s Sea’, ‘the Storyteller and the Thief’ and ‘Runaways’. All the young people are trying to rise above their troubled backgrounds, by escaping into fantasy worlds. Sadly, there are few happy endings and ‘Beside Titan’s Sea’ comes to a heart-breaking end when Bernard ‘travels’ too far into the realms of fantasy to escape his home life.

The most compelling story is ‘Walking Among Ruins in Babylon’, in which a husband’s insomniac thoughts are of his wife and the pressures placed upon her by her family and boss. The husband is at the end of his tether, but is ineffectual and slightly selfish. The power of this story is the conceit of a troubled caller. The husband is kept awake by his thoughts, but also by a desperate voice on the phone begging him for help. The phone call is an analogy for how deep the couple are sinking beneath the pressures, and their struggle to maintain their sanity in adversity.

Light relief is offered in the ‘Bloomsday Bus Driver’, a comedic story of a group’s attempt to reach the beach on a sunny day, thwarted by the lusty intentions of a Lothario bus driver who leaves his passengers while he pursues romance.

Overall, however, the stories make for rather grim reading. McGonagle is a highly accomplished writer and he has a knack for stitching pain and brokenness into narratives that are, on the exterior, often full of fantasy and humour. This ability increases the force of the story’s true meaning, when it eventually comes to light, and is felt and understood by the reader. Psychotic Episodes is to be recommended as a skilled collection of stories, but does not offer much in the way of light relief.

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