Brilliant but brutal short stories from an old master
Carl MacDougall returns at last with a bruising but vital collection
FEW people know more about Scottish short stories than Carl MacDougall. There are all those in the seven volumes of New Writing Scotland he has co-edited, those he has selected for a couple of other anthologies, and for good measure, a further two centuries’ worth he hand-picked for The Devil and the Giro. Add the hundreds or maybe even thousands that never made the grade and you can’t help thinking that if MacDougall ever grew tired of the genre, you’d cut him some slack.
But, no, because here he comes with a new collection of his own stories, his fourth, and his first for far too many years.
Stylistically, they vary enormously, from vignettes bristling with detail to longer tales culled of description, from epiphanies to a series of talking heads or a virtual novella.
Thematically, however, they have a lot more in common: there’s a reek of male brutality or death in every single one. Husbands slash their wives’ cheeks with pokers; a boy about to go to university is attacked in a pub toilet, his head stamped on so violently that his skull is almost open and his eye is hanging out; a girl’s life is wrecked by rape.
If there is ever a competition for pithy violent bleakness, MacDougall’s Spitting It Out would win at a canter: just three pages, and there’s a dying man who beats up his wife, and is beaten up in turn by his son’s partner before he dies, alone and unknown, at a bookie’s.
Granted, there’s more to this last story than its violence. You could easily make the case that it really was about a last, desperate, search for forgiveness, and that a stranger’s death in a bookie’s merely highlights the randomness of life. Yet why did the man want forgiveness from his son’s partner in the first place?
“You know what I’m going to think, so tell me what happened,” his wife tells him. He doesn’t answer, but my guess is the same as hers: that we’re back to male brutality again.
Korsakoff’s Psychosis is much longer, and bleaker still. Derek, an alcoholic architect, is warned that either his body will soon shut down and he will end up in a permanent vegetative state or it will merely half-shut and leave him slavering and incontinent.
Wandering the lanes between Blythswood Square and Argyle Street in search of abandoned glasses that haven’t been pissed in isn’t the lowest point; nor is it when he is beaten up and robbed by five guys (“I can prove I’m no jakie. Look, I’ve got money”: big mistake).
At 60-odd pages it occasionally loses its way by focussing on other characters, but when we’re inside Derek’s mind as it spirals out of control, with him desperate to have a drink because it might “make the bits and pieces in the corners of his eyes go away”, this is about as powerful a depiction of alcoholism as I have read.
The title story is outstanding. There are times when all those Raymond Carver wannabes, their style so pared down that there is not even a spare adjective to hang onto, can be rather tiresome. And Someone Always Robs the Poor might at first seem to be a case in point.
ITS opening is so, well, open that context becomes a guessing game, with clues only gradually seeded into the story. You latch onto a word like “cart” and wonder if we’re in the Middle Ages; half a page down, you see “Warsaw”. Train tickets for America are being bought, so you guess we might be in the late 1930s before the Second World War, yet these are passenger coaches, so you know that’s wrong too.
Perhaps it’s last year’s story, not last century’s; except it isn’t, because soon we are in Hamburg about to board an ocean-going boat, although nobody seems to want to collect a ticket, so perhaps it’s all a dream.
Slowly, the reader realises that it doesn’t matter whether it is 1890 or 1950: the important thing is that this is a story about illegal immigration and that is both as timeless and as timely as you could want.
In any case, MacDougall has already skilfully switched the story’s axis so that it becomes about a mother’s resourcefulness and a father’s ignorance. Details pour in like pixels – this is the poker across the cheek moment – and the story becomes specific and races to its conclusion.
I wish these stories weren’t always hinged on violence, but there is no denying their skill.
This is as powerful a depiction of alcoholism as I have read
Carl MacDougall will be at the Glasgow book festival Aye Write! next month