Bril­liant but bru­tal short sto­ries from an old mas­ter

Carl MacDougall re­turns at last with a bruis­ing but vi­tal col­lec­tion

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Carl MacDougall will be at the Glas­gow book fes­ti­val Aye Write!, March 12, 3pm. The Her­ald and Sun­day Her­ald are the event’s me­dia part­ners.

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

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