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Category: Short Stories

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Joseph Conrad once said that there is nothing more fantastical than life. This, I think, is largely true if we exclude imagination from the discussion. We dare to imagine things that are beyond the realm of possibility and probability, beyond the limits of convention and the likelihood of the everyday. Karen Russell’s imagination, however, stretches farther than most, from the plane of the surreal to the terrain of the absurd, from the wickedly magical to the downright supernatural. Even the title of her new short story collection – Vampires in the Lemon Grove – requires some assimilation. Russell takes the orthodox idea of the Gothic fable and turns it on its head, with humour, intelligence and linguistic gusto. The eponymous story follows Clyde and Magreb – a married couple – who resides in Sorrento, Italy, trying to contend with the impracticalities of being vampires by feasting on lemons instead of human blood. “Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything,” Clyde says, “fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere: Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogota, jackal’s mil in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties. We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand. It’s only these lemons that give us any relief.” The story is, of course, about more than just lemons and vampires. It is a candid inquiry into the varied course of human relationships, into marriage in particular, the general brevity and customs of which Clyde finds deeply dispiriting.

Every story in the collections is rooted in some topical theme, some conscientious exposition on the human condition which is one of the things that make them so resonant. Reeling for the Empires is, for example, about oppression and empowerment. It is told by a Japanese silkworm worker, living in a reeling mill in Japan. The twist here – and there’s always a twist with Russell’s work – is that the female factory workers manufacture the silk themselves by being plugged into a machine. The women are recruited for this specific purpose from villages across the country; their fathers sold a machination about nobility, about their daughters being specially selected to reel for the Empire. But the truth of it is quite contrary. “Every aspect of our new lives,” the narrator tells us, “from working to sleeping, bathing when we can get wastewater from the Machine is conducted in one big room.” Russell makes very explicit allusions here to the debasement of factory-working culture, human rights infringements and the patriarchal forces driving it. The Agent, who recruits the silkworm workers, is the embodiment of capitalism, an abjectly oppressive force in the women’s lives, from whom they liberate themselves by way of direct reversal of fortune. It is a simple enough story, but one told in an entirely unique voice and from an entirely unique perspective. Russell finds new and innovative ways in which to relay old and familiar ideas, surprising, challenging and entertaining the reader. Every one of her narratives has foundations in some aspect of our cultural heritage –  be it folklore, fairy tale, legend, myth – and  is scrupulously researched before being transformed into something quite new and unexpected, akin to modern day folklore and allegorical dreams.

Russell is also someone who finds inspiration in the world around her, in the things that have – directly and indirectly – impacted all our lives. She borrows her plots from reality and loops them round, drawing out the comedy, the mystery, the eeriness and the despair out of the ordinary. One of the stories in the collection is about a young sergeant back from Iraq, haunted by the death of his friend. The New Veterans is an emotionally loaded look at the past’s influence over the present, combining psychoanalytical examination of memory and how it can redeem and offer salvation. Here again the story’s seemingly straightforward plot is given the Russell treatment, when Derek begins physiotherapy and the woman treating him is able to manipulate the commemorative tattoo on his back, depicting the death day of his comrade Arlo. Russell’s brand of storytelling has been invariably described as magic realism and while the appellation certainly fits I think her work would be more accurately described as macabre realism in its use of dark and haunting ideas and human experiences. All the stories gathered in Vampires in the Lemon Grove toy with some ominously pathological aspect of human personality or despotic element of nature, which Russell explores with great psychological insight. In The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach 1979, for example, she chooses betrayal as her topic centering the story on a 14 year old boy called Nal, who loses the girl of his dreams to his older brother. The story could quite easily read as a simple tale of adolescent angst if it weren’t for Nal’s ominous encounter with a minatory sea gull, who proffers the youngster the possibility of reconfiguring his life. This is something Russell does time and again in the collection, by adding extra-ordinary elements to everyday life.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is Russell’s second short story collection, and showcases her talent as a writer who is coming into her own. She has a preternatural capability of combining the old with the new and making it appear original and inventive. And her inventiveness extends throughout the book, even to the less convincing stories such Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating, which is precisely as the title suggest  – a loosely assembled list of axioms about dehydrated foods, Zodiac boots and gaiters to aid aficionados of the sport in their endeavours, because ”tailgating in the Antarctic is not joke”; and The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, which reads like a gauche cautionary tale about a gang of bullies, who torment an outcast peer until they come across a scarecrow that resembles their victim and haunted by the effigy begin to feel remorse. The stories gathered here vary in quality and calibre, but have a sustained originality which reverberates with imaginative effulgence. There is a tangible materialism to every world that Russell creates, down to the seemingly inconsequential details, from the colour of sunsets on the Mediterranean coast in Vampires in the Lemon Grove to the adolescent jargon in The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, from the partisan divisions among the dead presidents in A Barn at the end of Our Term to the ins and outs of the Homestead Act in Proving Up. Russell pays very close attention to the little things while pushing narrative and linguistic boundaries, and paving the way for unexplored possibilities in new fiction, stretching over several genres and categories. This brave young writer clearly enjoys creating bewildering scenarios, designed to highlight the more unsettling aspects of composite realities, which on the surface appear intrinsically “normal” and average.

This is something Russell set out to explore, she says, adding that she’s fascinated by how “matter-of-factly people talk about crazy things that happen”. This quality of everyday madness echoes through the volume with a sense of bizarre verisimilitude. One wonders what source of voodoo Russell uses to solicits her ability to render life so eerie and unnerving, which when she does successfully attests to her literary brilliance. Vampires in the Lemon Grove offers a real mix, however, ranging from the superb to the mediocre but reading Russell’s work one can certainly see why this young writer was nominated or the Pulitzer Prize. And even though her ideas can sometimes fall a little flat and her language feels a little over-laboured –  often relying too heavily on metaphor, which makes her prose seem florid and overly imagistic –  Russell never fails to redeem herself through her exuberance and use of humour which surges through the collection. Speaking about writing in a recent interview Russell said she had two rules both of which materialised from advice given to her by two of her professors. One of which urged her to remember that “blue doesn’t stand out on blue” when juxtaposing “fantastic elements to the naturalistic elements in a story” and the other that “good writing should be surprising and true”. The heed of the latter is especially evident in Russell’s work, as the line between reality and fantasy is almost indistinguishable and only made conspicuous by the writer’s flourishing imagination.

The Awl | Karen Russell 

Salon | Karen Russell 

Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback:  256 pages
ISBN: 9780701187880


Chandler Brossard: Off-Beat

One hopes that there will always be a publisher willing to take a chance on the underdog, the underdog often being a writer who will most likely yield little commercial success. Such a publisher is not only commendable but also courageous. Allen Berlinski is just such a man, without whom Chandler Brossard’s collected shorts may have never made it into print. Over The Rainbow? Hardly (2004) failed to make publication on two separate occasions, until Berlinski accepted it for his Sun Dog Press. The introduction, written by the book’s editor Steven Moore, is studious and sympathetic, offering invaluable insight into both Brossard’s life and his work.

Chandler Brossard was born in 1922 in Idaho. He dropped out of school aged 11, and by the age of 18 was working in Washington as a reporter. Eventually, he moved to New York City and found employment with a number of prominent publications, including The New Yorker, American Mercury, Time, and Look magazine, where he remained from 1956-67. He later took to travelling around Europe, teaching there as well as in the US, while also writing fiction. Brossard was largely self-educated, and is now mostly remembered as the overlooked Beat, an appellation he vehemently rejected. This wholly unsolicited link was a result of his first book, Who Walk In Darkness (1952), which contained all the nascent elements that later came to define beatnik literature. The novel, set in Greenwich Village, was a phantasmagorical evocation of subterranean culture and life, temulent revelries, sex, psychedelics and the search for creative liberation. Asked about the Beat connection in 1979 Brossard said the critics who had made it were “not very thoughtful people” and had missed the point of the book.

Brossard believed the only correlation between himself and his Beat successors, who came 10 years later, was the fact that Who Walk in Darkness was set in the same bohemian environs of the Village, while everything else – style, syntax, subject – was at contrastive odds. In fact, much of Brossard’s work – especially in Over The Rainbow? Hardly – is irreconcilable with that of his contemporaries or precursors, as it “magically combines, orders, and dramatizes realities”, but not realities as we know them. This is in part due to Brossard’s sui generis prose-style, which shuns traditional narrative structure and literary etiquette in favour of the curious and the avant-garde. Over The Rainbow? Hardly consists of seven independent chapters, which range from venerean pastiches of popular fairy-tales to meditations on etymology and epistemology, poetry and everything in between. In Postcards: You Don’t Wish You Were Here, for example, Brossard offers literary snaps of various cities across the US by way of wry and acidulous narratives.  Each place is defined by an exaggeration of its perceived, or perhaps, more accurately, imagined, idiosyncrasies. In Lying Low, Virginia, for instance, “apples torture Newton by falling diagonally”. In Right As Rain, New Mexico, “Grief [is] a condition treasured by the educated and the upper middle class” and in If Looks Could Kill, South Carolina, “back stroke is not taught in school” because it “won’t help you much if you’re going to drown”.

Brossard’s writing is wayward, unpolished, ludibund and irreverent, adjusting to his mood at any given time as he vacillates from a nihilist to a martyr, from an existentialist to an idealist, from a writer to a reader; a technique which allows him to effectively convey the multiplicity of experience and emotions. In Shifty Sacred Songs, Brossard ruminates on “sadness”, saying: “One thing you’ve got to say for sadness. You don’t have to dress for it. Never. Unlike worshiping graven images of false gods.”  And later, of the character of “loneliness” and the emotion itself, Brossard notes: “It has staying power. It doesn’t stumble at the eight. It doesn’t make dates with you, then stand you up. Nor does it solicit you. No indeed. You come into it on your own terms. With your eyes wide open. You will never, never be justified in complaining, I was talked into this…Against my better judgement…In short, loneliness is a mother to us all. Just as the crust is mother to the pie.” The thought, like most thoughts in Shifty Sacred Songs, aspires to be profound but is somewhat hindered by the writer’s postmodernist anti-aestheticism. Although that’s not to say that Brossard lacks profundity elsewhere.

In a piece called Raging Joys, Sublime Violations, Brossard offers some earnestly profound feelings about the Vietnam War by deriding the American establishment, and its vainglorious imperialist mind-set that facilitated its intervention in the military conflict. Raging Joys, Sublime Violations is rampant, ebullient, bellicose and sexually explicit, the sort of show that galls and appals Middle America and beyond. But in the subtext of the piece, Brossard very cleverly draws out “the rape metaphor inherent in imperialism” and the self-congratulatory brutish bravado of the military, its contradictions and equivocations. At one point in the piece the soldiers break into song: “Our objective in Laos is to stabilise the situation again, if possible, if possible, within the 1962 Geneva settlement,” with the others adding: “So, let us bomb them, bomb them, for democracy,” which, of course, was the intention all along. Brossard was an avid anti-war activist and helped North Vietnamese victims while working in the UK for an organisation dedicated to the cause. Thus, Raging Joys, Sublime Violations is perhaps one of the most impassioned – if subversive – pieces in the omnibus, and one which makes the reader really think. In fact, Brossard’s work demands the reader think an awful lot, as he periodically dispenses with all forms of convention, compelling one to connect the seemingly unrelated dots of his narrative – an occasionally onerous task, but also a rewarding one.

Compensation is also provided amid Brossard’s more light-hearted offerings, including the frolicsome vignettes that make up Dirty Little Books for Little Folks and A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean.  Both pornographic in nature, they read like some bizarrely hircine reveries of a stoned somnambulist. The protagonist in A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean caroms from page to page, from misadventure to misadventure, with ferocious alacrity and to great comic effect; while the tales in Dirty Little Books for Little Folks dramatise popular children’s stories, emphasising and exaggerating their innate erotic elements, and thereby offering a new dimension to the classics.  Harsher critics may grumble that Brossard’s work is often indecipherable, but I am one with E. M Forster, who said that “nonsense and beauty have close connections” – one simply has to look for them.  And looking for them in Over The Rainbow? Hardly is easy, as the collection captures perfectly Brossard’s off-Beat, “unhinged mind,” which is indeed “a thing of beauty”. 

J.D. Salinger: Unmatched, unparalleled and, in fact, inimitable

Sitting anxiously on an unwieldy polypropylene chair and perusing one of those consummately moronic-fashion magazines to pass the time while waiting to be called in for my 5:45 appointment, I snarled and fawned at numerous depictions of girls lacking any vestige of verisimilitude. Eventually, benumbed by the thought of having to read a feature on how to make your own four-tier wedding cake, I plucked a book of short stories from my bag and began reading A Perfect Day for Bananafish. Funnily enough, the story opens with a girl in a hotel room reading an article in a “pocket-sized women’s magazine” called “Sex is fun – or Hell,” while waiting for a long-distance phone call.  The similarity was completely coincidental, but truth be known I would have rather read the aforementioned feature than one on baking. I fear it is a little too late for my culinary erudition.

News of J.D. Salinger’s death, on 27th January 2010, came as unexpectedly as the ending in A Perfect Day for Bananafish. I cried – suddenly, childishly – assailed by brackish melancholy and funerary newsprint; and later, spent the evening looking for answers at the bottom of a vodka glass. A somewhat ridiculous reaction perhaps but one of spontaneity rather than premeditation. My interest in books began at the age of 12 with the reading of The Catcher in the Rye. I read it many times thereafter and a lot of books since, including all of Salinger’s, but now looking back I think it was that particular book and that particular writer who singlehandedly shaped my reading preferences and thus his death was like a dissolution of a part of my own childhood. There are many reasons why I love Salinger, some obvious, others not, but one of them is captured perfectly in the following snapshot: when Elia Kazan asked Salinger’s permission to produce The Catcher in the Rye on Broadway, Salinger simply replied: “I cannot give my permission. I fear Holden wouldn’t like it.” And for that, and all his marvellous prose, Salinger will always be, for me at least, unmatched, unparalleled and, in fact, inimitable.

The first part of A Perfect Day for Bananafish takes place in a room at a Florida hotel full of “New York advertising men…monopolising the long distance lines”. The girl waiting to receive a call is the sort who wears elegant Saks blouses, varnishes her nails in classic-scarlet red and looks “as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she reached puberty.” Muriel eventually picks up the phone, after the fifth or the sixth ring, while nonchalantly passing her freshly lacquered left hand “back and forth through the air” to be greeted with her mother’s concerned: “I’ve been worried to death about you.” As the conversation progresses the reader is introduced to a character initially known as “he” who emerges as a somewhat facinorous personage or at least one whose peculiar behaviour and “funny business with trees” makes him sound unhinged. The “he” in question is Muriel’s husband, Seymour Glass, fresh off the boat from a battlefield in Germany and deeply troubled by the horrors he witnessed in the trenches. His wife, “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948” as he calls her, is oblivious to her husband’s plight or anything beyond her insular world of conservative Manhattan. Muriel is bovaristic, conceited and superficial, even in her conversation with her mother which shifts without preamble from “her raving maniac” husband and the merits of psychoanalysis to her “blue coat” which too isn’t perfect and needs alterations. Salinger juxtaposes the subjects, the shallow with the weighty, to highlight the inanity of the former and the general lack of understanding about the latter. A Perfect Day for Bananafish centres around the after-effects of war, and the invisible wounds it leaves on those who have been privy to its monstrosities.

The subject matter is close to Salinger’s heart, and one he experienced first-hand while serving as a sergeant during World War II. Salinger landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, France, on D-Day in 1944 to fight against the Germans and spent the next year in battle, once writing to his mentor and Story magazine editor Whit Burnett to say he was unable to “describe the events” he had seen because they were too “horrendous to put into words.” The initial sights of war, the burning machine guns, wounded soldiers slipping away of exsanguination, crashing mortars, and fatal ambushes, remained with Salinger for the rest of his life. He never spoke about them, like Seymour, but they were said to have entrenched themselves on his memory. Seymour is in many ways a doppelganger of Salinger, endowed with the exact same feelings and post-traumatic stress symptoms that Salinger himself experienced.

Salinger’s foray into writing began in the Spring of 1939 when he audited a Friday evening short-story writing class at Columbia University given by Burnett, who later remembered Salinger as a quiet young man who sat in class “without taking notes, seemingly not listening, looking out the window.” Salinger daydreamed through the course then much to everyone’s surprise wrote a brilliant short story called The Young Folks which Burnett published in Story magazine in 1940. Salinger continued writing throughout his time in service, on a portable typewriter which he kept in his Jeep. The stories written during this time were published in various popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Esquire, and depicted the subject of war. Later, Salinger refused to have the stories reprinted simply saying he didn’t “think they were worthy of publishing.”

Like Seymour, Salinger wrangled with “battle fatigue” and a sense of loneliness, isolation, ineffectuality and feelings of being a misfit long after he returned from the war.  A Perfect Day for Bananafish is an implicit nod to Salinger’s own internal turmoil, a cathartic exercise to relay the largely undisclosed and ongoing tumult of a soldier off the battlefield. In a bid to steady his life, Salinger sought to get married and did so in 1945 to a woman of German extraction called Sylvia, with characteristically teutonic features, pale skin, and who, like Muriel, habitually sported “blood red lips and nails”. The couple’s relationship was “extremely intense both physically and emotionally” with Salinger once claiming that she had “bewitched him”. Sylvia filed for a divorce on 13th June 1946, and the two never saw each other again. He continued to write without much acclaim or success, until in 1948, after a decade of rejection slips, the New Yorker published A Perfect Day for Bananafish which kick-started his career as a serious writer.  The second part of the story takes place on the beach outside the Florida hotel where a sprightly little girl, by the name of Sybil approaches a young man decubitus on the sand in his “terry cloth robe”.

The story’s main motif formulates in the latter part when Seymour is confronted with the innocence of a child who becomes an unwitting catalyst for the way he chooses to deal with his affliction, having quietly realised that his own innocence is irretrievably gone. And yet Seymour is momentarily drawn in to the little girl’s world, its childish fancies and naive whims, when he suggests the two go catch a “bananafish.” The little girl doesn’t question his yarn, but rather sets of on the adventure holding Seymour’s hand while he tells her about “bananafish” saying: “They lead a very tragic life. You know what they do Sybil? Well, they swim into a hole where there’s a lot of bananas. They’re very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in they behave like pigs. Why, I’ve known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as 78 bananas…Naturally, after that they’re so fat they can’t get out of the hole…They die.” The thought of death, brings Seymour back to the present prompting him to stop abruptly and say “We’re going in now,” before kissing Sybil goodbye. A sense of sadness underlines the pathos of Seymour’s predicament, and yet while the exchange between him and the girl seems entirely care-free a sense of foreboding is never far away. The story ends back in hotel room 507, redolent “of new calfskin luggage and nail lacquer remover,” with a closing that shocks me to this day. Re-reading the story, and thereafter contemplating the most recent and bloody world conflicts and all the lives they’ve claimed, I realised that the old lie: “Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori,” has never seemed so old, devious or prevaricating as it does today.

RIP Sam.  

[A Perfect Day for Bananafish is the first story in the For For Esmé – with Love and Squalor collection.]

Russell Mardell: Earnest, mocking and insightful

Russell Mardell makes me laugh.  Firstly, as someone who is very funny. But, secondly, and more importantly, as a writer. This is significant, because funny people aren’t always funny on paper. Mardell is. He says his “shit social skills” is why he “became a writer.” He’s being modest. He also says he imagines I swear a lot. He’s right. In fact, I lost count of the number of times I animatedly exclaimed “f***” while reading his work. Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass is Mardell’s first book, a loosely assembled collection of reticulated sketches involving a dragoon of crackpot characters; cullions, lurchers, drifters, human blunders, women who keep men in their bathtubs and other vermicular personalities. The setting, a town of undisclosed purlieus called Mewlish Lull, indirectly connects the characters together as their individual weird and peculiar tales fall into context through linkage to a place that belongs on a “government target board” rather than “a postcard” and supposedly “Kills Its Kids”. Occasionally, perhaps, that could be justified but generally it’s not right, is it. Thus when in the opening story, Notes from Mewlish Lull – Rain, a nameless narrator arrives to be greeted by the infanticide-denoting epitaph one gets the distinct impression that things are a little awry. This notion is further fortified by his encounters with the locals; a dapper mendicant living in the underpass, a pusillanimous shopkeeper and a “suspiciously clingy” woman called Jennifer with a gimp in her bathtub.

All of the above is enough to give you a head-spin, while also leaving you wondering about the man in the tub and why the anonymous narrator, who resurfaces throughout, is so keen to jilt his old life. These ruminations are quickly dispelled by the opening pages of Armand Gull Drinks Whiskey. As I told Mardell immediately after reading the story, it made me snigger so much on my morning commute the bus almost toppled over. It opens with the following: “Edward James Lynton Tatchford (Tatch, to his friends, of which he counted five, and Teddy, to his mother) had been in the shack on the beach, battling against the side effects of winter for five days and was starved of company. The fevered and slightly bizarre tramp he had met on the third day had run away and left a shoe in one corner. It was the sort of shoe that looked like it had fallen from a cartoon and he was frightened it would start talking to him.” And it gets more absurd with every page, but also more perspicacious as a pragmatic explanation of a man being driven to extremes by the dross of a nine-to-five life. Mardell’s writing has a visual quality, possibly due to his background in film and theatre, and shows a penchant for post-modern aesthetic. Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass contains a valorisation of individual subjective experiences relayed through tracing of each character’s consciousness and all its contingent manifestations. It is quietly epistemological, and inquires into the practicalities of perception over objective universal truths. But it has a few of those too.

The collection of stories has no steadfast linear narrative apart from the intermittent commentary of the unnamed protagonist who embarks on a new life in this rather peculiar town, because as he says: “Someone I might have loved had told me to grow up. So here I was growing up.”  The weird exordium into town is followed by employment with “Stan the white van man” who dispenses supererogatory clichés, chats “casual horrors” and bleats about the “bleedin’ southern liberals”. The situation is further complicated by Jennifer’s unplanned pregnancy and her reluctant involvement with the pestilential gimp. The narrator, who unwittingly becomes part of the scene, is a fellow jaded by the doggedly mundane modern world, yet his cynical transcendence of sentiment is a defence mechanism, a fear of being human, since being human is a painful business. This is reflected through his own recollections of past and lost loves, disappointments, endless shifting from town to town, and a sort of entropy defined by taking everything, even the biggest of life’s surprised, with a “non-committal, suits-all occasions” smile. Yet it feels as if he has embarked on a search for something, in both a metaphysical and spiritual sense, for something that remains elusive. The protagonist is trapped within himself, by his past and yet estranged from it, a sort of middle class paradigm, which propels him at one point to conclude that maybe he “really is pointless.” Not an uncommon thought. I’ve had a few of those myself.

Mardell polarises the problems of contemporary society by illuminating various stereotypes, occasionally to fetishistic lengths, through irony and absurdist tactics thereby highlighting the inanity of our uber-sophisticated modern world. His work is at once earnest, mocking and insightful, but as Mardell himself says he likes “readers to make their own conclusions, superimpose their own emotions and logic” and take from his “slightly skewed reality” whatever is “pertinent to them”.  And yet his skewed reality seems to make perfect sense, as for example when the narrator speaks to a stranger in the park watching a kid fly a kite and the stranger says: “Simple pleasures…It is the continual search for more and more diverse gratifications that stunts us as humans. The technological age with all its undoubted wonders has also always made us look for more. Always look for better. The next big thing,” when in truth it is the small and infinitesimal things, such as flying a kite, that make all the difference.  The chapter, Notes from Mewlish Lull – Smiler Desmond is Dead, charting the interaction between the two men, reveals a different, more open and self-reflective side to the narrator who has “spent years cultivating strong defences.” The stranger, a once famous but now washed-up comedian, at one point says: “I look at so many of my peers now, pompous people who would drone on and on about ‘their art’, about ‘their craft’, now whoring themselves out to ridicule just so they can cling on to the fake life that has hidden them from the real world so long ago. Prostituting for a pay packet that keep their pneumatically-titted wife in handbags and spray tan. I dry hump a tuba, but somehow I think I have more dignity.” A germane point about modern day culture and its histrionic preoccupation with the superficial? I think so.

The stories are thematically alike in that they aim to reveal something about human nature, like the one called Farrington about a boy making his second voyage to London “and the first without the safety net of being a school trip”. His mother’s words ring in his ears as he gets into town and remembers: “Nothing but freaks and deviants, gangsters and whores, terrorist and bankers!” To set him up for his sojourn to see his girlfriend his mother enrols him in a preparatory obstacle course with the words,“You go to London, you go prepared,” where he is subjected to the dithyrambs of one Corporal Max Billings, a man with a “questionable military background”. Mardell exaggerates the concept of moral panic to the nth degree to reflect and decry the typical small-town mentality which is surprisingly prevalent to this day. An overview of human nature is also the subject of the title story which captures a day in the life of a misanthropic OCD-ridden fellow who sits on a park bench smoking one of his 10 daily cigarettes waiting for something interesting to happen. But when it finally does, he feels isolated and ignored by the people with “dull metal objects adorning their heads” gathering together in the park, and retreats to the safe-haven of his flat, concluding dejectedly:  “Years of itching away from people and living alone on fun wealth and bleary-eyed despondency that had finally cracked its solitary goal. They had left me to it.” By and large Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass depends on the reader to construct a larger narrative from a number of subtle hints, incidental details and scattered chronology while it blends fact, scene and portraiture into a compendium of misanthropy and bizarre eventualities. Interestingly, London provided much of the inspiration for the setting of Mewlish Lull. The rest Mardell attributes to the art of fiction although he does concede that there are “certain nods and hints” which are true to life.

Born in Cambridge in 1975, a place where back in those days all the “mammas went to unleash their children to the world”, Mardell grew up in Salisbury and thereafter “bummed around various places” including Bristol where he settled for a while in “an attic flat” and began writing and “living through the night on coffee and cigarettes”. He has had a variegated career from working in a video shop to working as a writer and director in independent film as well as penning five plays, some of which he directed and produced. He is currently writing a new book when taking time off from being cajoled into reminiscing about a poetry prize he won as a youngster for a poem about a hippo that died in transit due to ineffectual humans. I thought it a rather intriguing premise, as is the one behind Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass. Personally, however, I think I would have liked it to have revolved exclusively around the down-and-out narrator but perhaps there’s a reason why it does not. Perhaps that was the writer’s intention but, whatever it is, I think Mardell is right when he says “the only thing that matters is what the reader gets” from one’s work , the emotion it solicits, the reaction it evokes “be it good or bad.”

Brendan Behan: A drinker with a writing problem

There’s a lot to be said for a man who could drink all of his compatriots under the table and still walk a straight line, namely that he had to be Brendan Behan. I say that with the greatest admiration which I have had for Behan ever since reading Borstal Boy. I learned a lot about Behan vicariously through his notoriety and J.P Donleavy, who once characterised his fellow Irishman by saying: “Behan always wore his shirt open to the navel; he never had shoelaces and the tongues of his shoes would always hang out… He was tremendous company…And a very, very interesting and profound man. He was a great raconteur and entertained everyone. Although he was shrewd about fame, most people assume that recognition changed Behan, that he became a great bubbling over, a very talkative, almost loudmouthed crazy man because of success. But he was always like that. He would walk into a village and start to sing….He would carry on conversations everywhere and with everybody as he walked through a street…That was Behan.” But there was also another Behan; a Behan who had an incredible literary gift demonstrated impeccably in After the Wake, a collection of Behan’s writings published by O’Brien Press. The book, with a superb introduction by Peter Fallon, contains some previously unpublished material and boasts a cavalcade of 21 pieces, some fictional, some autobiographical, charting the political, social and cultural history of Irish life through the eyes of one of her most talented but troubled sons.

With typical whiplash flippancy Brendan Behan once noted that the key defining quality of the Irish is “that that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody”. This could not have been more true of Behan himself, as both his life and his work was marked by a distinctive tone of sedition. After Behan died in 1964 from sclerosis of the liver, Flann O’Brien wrote his obituary in The Irish Times, describing his one-time drinking pal as “more a player than a playwright, or, to use a Dublin saying, ‘He was as good as a play’.” Behan was indeed a hell of a showman, and a master deipnosophist, but he was also a remarkable writer with a knack for storytelling, an ear for dialogue, rambunctious wit and a dash of comic mayhem surging through his veins. He joined Fianna Boys (an Irish Republican Youth Organisation) at the age of 14, but was discharged for disorderly conduct under the influence of drink. Behan, nevertheless, carried his Republican politics like a tocsin and spent time in prison for a number of offences, including plotting with the IRA to bomb the Liverpool docks and an attempt to kill two gardaí. It was in jail that he honed his writing skills and gathered up material for his canon. Initially Behan’s literary reputation was built on the back of innovative work, but gradually his writing became secondary to the drinking which killed him aged 41. He died in Meath hospital after reportedly telling a nun looking after him: “Ah, bless you, Sister, may all your sons be bishops.”

Behan began his literary career by contributing patriotic prose and verses to Fianna, The Voice of Ireland, Wolfe Tone Weekly and The United Irishman between 1937-9. But his name became a household one after the publication of Borstal Boy in 1958; an autobiographical account of Behan’s arrest and imprisonment (1939 to 1943) for his involvement with the IRA. After the Wake contains a precursor to the autobiography entitled I Became a Borstal Boy initially published in The Bell in 1942. Written in emblematic Behan fashion with a quaint and loquacious medley of Irish and British slang, it alternates between the stark adrenaline-infused reality of confinement and the delicate and tender nuances of friendship informed, subconsciously, by the axiom that “no man is an island, entire of its own”. I Became a Borstal Boy recounts Behan’s sentencing to “three years’ Borstal detention” in a British correctional facility, and a brief description of another fellow who’d “battered in” his wife. With a sense of poignancy, Behan muses: “He spoke with such evident sincerity that when I read later an account of his execution I wondered if he has been guilty after all.” The piece immediately after, called “The Execution”, was first published in 1978 by Liffey Press, and follows three men as they take a snitch out far beyond the city and to his death, the narrator reasoning that if those who  “give away dumps on us” are overlooked “there’d soon be no respect for the army.” In retrospect, and with a dash of sympathy, the narrator says, “the poor devil wouldn’t have run even if we had let him,” and then with an unexpected sense of subdued altruism: “We put him in the grave. He felt quite warm. I told the lads to be careful not to get any bloodstains on their clothes. We began to shovel in earth. I moved a big stone off my shovel – it might smash in his face.” Behan’s writing has a ubiquitous quality and a remarkable vicissitude as it jumps seamlessly from the coarse to the doleful, thereby deliquescing convention to find a voice entirely its own.

The title story, After the Wake, charts Behan’s friendship with a married couple. The husband, a beautiful blonde man “always a little cultured, proud and happy to be so broad-minded”, she [the dying wife] always full of “adolescent pride in the freedom of her married state to drink a bottle of stout and talk about anything with her husband and husband’s friend.” It caused a bit of a stir upon initial publication in the Parisian magazine Points in 1950 for its portrayal of male friendship and unceremonious allusions to homosexuality. The story stands apart from all the others, whatever the provenance, due to its muted tone and the masterly balance of dramatic tension; for its illuminations of certain perdurable human truths and the ability of people to find solace in one another irrespective of circumstance. Behan concludes the story with a resigned sense of cynicism: “I fancied her face looking up from the open coffin on the Americans who, having imported wakes from us, invented morticians themselves.” Some people have dismissed After the Wake on account of moral turpitude and confusion over Behan’s sexuality. But, according to Behan’s wife Beatrice, the semi-destitute Behan was writing pornographic prose in Paris after the war for money rather than to add to his autobiographical catalogue. Either way, the story is marvellous.

My favourite, however, has to be The Confirmation Suit first published in The Standard in 1953. It is near impossible to reduce a reader to tears, but the story had me lachrymose; the coruscating, hardy prose describing an episode from Behan’s childhood is both tender and provocative, and relays the making of his Confirmation garb by his grandmother’s neighbour. He recalls his grandmother and Miss McCann, who proudly made the garments, crying as they saw him “in the velvet suit, with its small lapels and big buttons” and later celebrating with a “drink to the strength of my having grown to be a big fellow in the space of 12 years.” Embarrassed, Behan wears his topcoat during the ceremony, recollecting afterward how every Sunday from thereon in “my mother fought over the suit. She said I was a liar and a hypocrite, putting it on for a few minutes every week, and running into Miss McCann’s and out again, letting her think I wore it every week-end.” Only later, following the death of Miss McCann who loved him more than any kid she knew, does he realise what it meant to her to have fashioned the ceremonious regalia, concluding: “After the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.” One of the most distinguishable qualities of Behan’s work is its ability to evoke unsolicited emotion and he does do throughout. Similarly, in the first, and formerly unpublished, story of the collection called The Last of Mrs Murphy which records Behan’s memories of an elderly neighbour who, on his fifth birthday, took him to “Jimmy the Sports” for his first “dandy glass of porter” and a bit of “white snuff”. But the story is about more than that; it is about the collective consciousness of a community closely knitted together trough fallen skies, madness, old age, marriage, death and beyond. When Mrs Murphy is taken to the “Refuge of the Dying” by Behan’s grandmother, Lizzie MacCann and Long Byrne, the three neighbours conclude that: “It’s not the kind of place I’d like to leave a neighbour or a neighbour’s child.” The scene ends with a little ardent banter between a nurse and Byrne, when the former says, sniffing at Mrs Murphy, “I get a distinct smell of whiskey”, to which Byrne replies: “How well you’d know it from the smell of gin, rum or brandy… Ah well I suppose practice makes perfect.”

The other previously unpublished piece of the collection is The Catacombs, a part of an unfinished novel, which commences with the following: “There was a party to celebrate Deirdre’s return from her abortion in Bristol” for which Behan “put up the money for the trip and the readies to pay the quack”. The story gets both more absurd and funny, as Behan relays his interaction with Deirdre’s Catalonian-Irish family, her “screwy old bitch” mother, Deirdre’s brother and fellow IRA sympathiser Ciaran, and uncle Hymie who mostly sits “in the corner blind drunk as he has been for sixty years” and infects the world with his poisonous yet comical persiflage. The seemingly copacetic state of affairs quickly develops into garboil as Behan gets embroiled in a forbidden dalliance, is accused of selling “Jesus Christ for three-quarters of a pound of beef,” and nicks a tenner while making his exodus from the pandemonium before heading down to the pub. The Catacombs is a brilliant piece of prose, as are most in the collection; not least the last of the longer pieces entitled A Woman of No Standing. First published in Envoy in 1950, and then some years later as That Woman in Creation the story is an all too human portrait of a deceased man’s “other woman” and her appearance at his funeral. On his death bed in “Pigeon House sanatorium” the man in question is absolved from all his sins, with the priest concluding: “It’s not when you die, but how you die that matters”. As for the other woman, “no one saw her to know what she thought of it, but the priest gave strict orders that she wasn’t to be let near the funeral”. The wronged wife forgives her husband “whatever lingering scald her heart might hold” only to be confronted by the other woman who, “bent in haggard prayer, dressed in the cast off hat and coat of some flahoo”, passes the widow by with “her head down and a pale hunted look in her eyes”. A Woman of No Standing has a wonderful human quality to it, a gift which Behan had in abundance and more than any of his contemporaries.

The remainder 14 pieces under the blanket title of The Same Again, Please were published in The Irish Press between 1954-6. Amusing, impulsive, perceptive, funny, they range in content and tone and style, as the opening of each attests. The following are some of my favourites, starting with: The Turnip Boat which commences with a somewhat arbitrary statement: “For some reason a friend of mine wanted to ship turnips from Six Counties port.” Another one called Toronto Spinster Frowned opens with an even more peculiar thought: “Myself and Winston Churchill were once upon a time in the same organisation; he as an Elder Brother of Trinity House and I as a painter for the Irish Lights.” Then there’s a piece called Red Jam Roll, the Dancer which sees Behan recollecting something with great wordplay: “I am reminded of boxing matters by an encounter I had this day with a former opponent of mine, pugilistically speaking. I do not mean our encounter this day was a pugilistic one, but it was pugilitstically speaking we last spoke.” And Three Celtic Pillars of Charity which deems: “This life is full of disappointments.” That may be true generally speaking, it is not so when it come to Behan. While there’s always a fear that a writer one admires but has read very little of might, in the end, turn out to be a disappointment, After the Wake is an Emerald Isle gem and much like the man himself a heady mixture of “hell and heaven and despair and presumption and hope”.

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