Book review: Hearing Voices Seeing Things

WILLIAM WALL’s fine short story collection is drawn from a rich imaginative palette that gives voice to the fragility and absurdity of life, the alienated, the romantically disappointed, and those at the receiving end of the cruelty of men, including a boy in a boarding school run by priests.

If that sounds depressing, Wall also shows off his mastery of satire and has fun with a couple of stories such as For Fun Times Phone Dodger. This is about an incredibly naive American guy, presumably a student, bankrolled by his father to travel. Finding himself with a 24-hour stopover and nothing to do, he spots a note in a toilet and decides to phone Dodger.

The fun involves sex which the surprised narrator refuses. But he still manages to be parted from a lot of cash in this crazy tale that hinges on laughter-inducing misunderstandings.

Most of the stories are in the first person and start with arresting sentences. The first, Paper and Ashes, exemplifies this. “I got the death certs for the crows,” says the recently-widowed narrator who goes on to explain that when someone dies, the ‘crows’ all come pecking.

The woman’s husband, an accountant who, it is implied, fell prey to grandiose schemes, has left her penniless.

The woman, who is carrying her husband’s ashes in an urn and loses the death certs because a boy robs her, meets a Book of Common Prayer-quoting tramp on a street and thinks to herself: “I have only this old man.” Wall, whose style ranges from the lyrical to the stark, has a keen eye for an image that can suggest different things.

In Bridey and Jim on Kodak, which is about the effect the Yanks had on Whitegate in Co Cork (where Wall grew up) with the building of the oil refinery there, he writes of the sexual frisson between the married Bridey and her American lodger, Henry J Winter.

“There is a photograph of Bridey and Mr Winter, standing with their backs to some fuchsia bushes in bloom. The naked pink legs of the fuchsia under short skirts forms an erotic backdrop.” (Who’d have thought?) Fuchsia is a whole other metaphor in The Mountain Road.

Cáit, something of a scarlet woman, goes to the wake of her former married lover, James Casey, who has taken his life and that of his two young daughters. She is not wanted in the house, a scene of terrible grief. James’s brother spews bitter words at Cáit about how she ensnared James and broke his heart. “You took him and you wouldn’t keep him and then you left him. Why else would he do it?” Cáit cycles away from the wake observing nature. “Fuchsia speckled the roadsides with their first bloody skirts.”

In stories about boys’ schools of not that long ago, run by orders of priests, we have come to expect violence and perversion. In Telling, the reader is alerted to the cunning and sly machinations of the sadistic Fr Tully, the dean of discipline, who knows he’s got all the power. He lashes out with the cane in one hand and later takes a bar of chocolate from his soutane in his other hand and gives it to his favourite victim, kissing him softly on his forehead.

The tortured schoolboy subject observes: “If ever you told anyone they would not have believed you. But you knew from the beginning that there was no telling.”

There’s no telling the absurdity of ‘scientific’ research in Wall’s amusing satirical story, Statement Regarding the Recent Human Soul Experiments. The narrator, an enthusiastic ‘techie,’ can prove the soul exists. “... it should be possible, going forward, to buy and sell souls or possibly even total soul replacement.”

Hearing Voices Seeing Things

William Wall

Doire Press, €12


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