Lives measured by vulnerability
Las Vegas for Vegans
By A. S. Patric Transit Lounge, 223pp, $29.95 By Andy Kissane Puncher & Wattmann, 204pp, $24.95
THERE’S something unsettling about the cover of A. S. Patric’s second collection of stories. It’s a Denise Scott Brown photograph of the Las Vegas Strip in the 1960s. A man in a black suit stares obliquely towards the casino development, the sky a stark and brilliant blue, the pale valley beyond. In many ways, this image is emblematic of Melbournebased Patric’s characters in Las Vegas for Vegans: men and women caught in a trancelike trajectory towards differing annihilation.
In Beckett & Son, Devon, a young man who is ‘‘ probably gay’’, witnesses his father having a fatal heart attack, then heads off to work. With iPod earphones jammed in his ears, Devon immerses himself in Joy Division and Mogwai, disassociating himself from the events of the morning and everyone around him. Cleverly, Patric sets up an unexpected twist at the end of the story.
Boys is a strong tale of children’s friendship, set in Serbia. Sava and Milan leave Uncle Stefan’s mansion to play by an abattoir. ‘‘ They had been best friends for three years and sometimes didn’t need to talk for hours. Both felt stronger, braver and brighter simply being in each other’s company.’’ Unfortunately, the abattoir supervisor finds them loitering and pulls a gun. What transpires tests the foundations of the boys’ friendship, with Sava pointedly wondering: ‘‘ How could a man be transformed into anything other than what he already was?’’
Guns N’ Coffee is an absurd anecdote about a man drawing a gun in a crowded cafe when he’s not served coffee quickly enough. ‘‘ It’s a modest gun. I’m not a closet Dirty Harry wanting someone to make my day. I just want cellist on the brink of throwing away his musical career, a recently widowed grandfather struggling to tell his daughter about a burgeoning new romance, a sleazy salesman having an affair with a buxom colleague.
But unlike in Las Vegas for Vegans, these characters’ curious vulnerability is rather benign and mostly endearing.
There’s plenty of nostalgia too. People who’ve seen better days long for their younger selves, keen to revive old memories and the idealism of the past.
Old Friends details the impromptu reunion of three former NIDA students, now in their 40s. Paul is working in a cafe when he encounters Ursula, and their meeting is a catalyst for memory, lost and unexpected romance.
The longest story is A Mirror to the World, in which Damian, an academic and historical novelist, embarks on an affair with his sultry and attentive younger student. Interweaving this narrative are fragments of Damien’s new novel, a frontier story about a young girl murdered by an outlaw. But he’s struggling with emotional authenticity in his writing: ‘‘[ W]henever I try to evoke a pure heart, or write an honourable man, or depict a faithful relationship, I end up crossing it all out and starting again.’’
Damian, a casualty of his own selfaggrandising, has plenty of inadequacies — as a writer and a man — that are slowly revealed to him through the course of the story, resulting in entertaining intertextuality.
The Swarm is thoroughly readable and most of the stories draw you in. Kissane is a fine stylist, with a keen eye for detail: lines such as ‘‘ the brutal circumference of a bullet’’ remain with you long after finishing.
Unfortunately, the small font makes reading the collection a little difficult. I hope that doesn’t put anyone off. This is a terrific addition to Australia’s thriving contemporary short fiction.