Monday, 18 November 2013

My Writer Crush on Simon Van Booy

Already the title is beguiling, a book you have to have. Love Begins in Winter. Who can resist a title like that, a lead story about a cellist, now that the skies are closing in, the grass is always wet, swept with leaves falling before you.

Then to read the words of this reviewer.. If F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marguerite Duras had had a son, he would be Simon Van Booy....(Andre Dubus III) How can you resist?

Walter's Journey Through the Rain

Walter wheeled his hot, ticking motorbike up and down the muddy lane, breathing with the rhythm of a small, determined engine. Fists of breath hovered and then opened over each taken-step. He would soon be within sight of his beloved's house. In the far distance, Sunday parked over the village like an old mute who hid his face in the hanging thick of clouds. The afternoon had seen heavy rain and the fields were soft.

Now. Don't think if you're unfamiliar with Van Booy's work that these lovey-dovey titles are written by a man who eats quiche. Van Booy's interests are isolation, the return from grief, hallowed moments involving birds and ticking bicycles and the beauty of stones. His stories are sometimes cinematic, which I don't normally like, but he includes an emptiness and silence that must be furnished by the reader. Coastlines, the smashing sea, the cold and wet.

And of course love. Which twists and shoots and expands.

From my pocket I took a large stone and set it squarely in his open hand. If there is such a thing as marriage, it takes place long before the ceremony: in a car on the way to the airport; or as a gray bedroom fills with dawn, one love watching the other; or as two strangers stand together in the rain with no bus in sight, arms weighed down with shopping bags. You don't know then. But later you realise - that was the moment.
And always without words.
Language is like looking at a map of somewhere. Love is living and surviving on the land.

(from Love Begins in Winter)

I am not sure that I can bear the wash of deep pain and love woven through Van Booy's stories and their particularly slow strain of grace. Artfully, he teaches us how to immerse ourselves in the long short story and those who say that the short story lacks substance, leaves you suspended, would do well to walk awhile with Mr. Van Booy.

A child who bites like a tiger, who grows up to become a paediatrician. A birdman in a park is not the long lost brother a woman imagines. A man marooned in a wet windy city finds he has a Nordic daughter and leaves everything. A young man sobs in St. Peter's Square in Rome, in a story that moves back to a crass gondola trip in Las Vegas. Memories are stirred; lives are tugged out of shape. Deservedly, Simon Van Booy won the Frank O'Connor prize in 2009. I've just ordered two more books.

When I awoke, Brian was gazing down off the side of the rock into a deep pool. His bare back was a field of bronze muscle. I had forgotten his male strength. It was late afternoon. The sky had bruised. There was a wind and the trees shook. Wind is the strangest thing. The word describes a phenomenon.  (from Tiger, Tiger)

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The other day I found myself sandwiched between Stieg Larsson and Alice Munro

The other day I found myself sandwiched between Stieg Larsson and Alice Munro. I was very uncomfortable! 

I don't imagine these things happen very often, or in real life. Journalist and writer Sandra Danby kindly reviewed one of the stories in 'Pelt and Other Stories', called 'At the Malga'. Before me came Stieg Larsson. After, none other than Alice Munro. Who said anything about squirming?

"At the Malga, a charming story of juxtapositions. Past/present, snow/sun, winter/summer, husband/stranger. An encounter between two strangers, left behind at an Alpine hotel by their fitter companions; one is tired, the other injured. They walk towards a malga, a walk that may lead to more than cheese.
There is a wonderful sensuousness about their companionship. They pass a lake."

Veronique had never paused here this long, except to loosen her neck scarf or apply sunblock. But now she felt an urge to wade into the rippled surface, feeling her bare feet fitting over the round stones and the chill delineation rising along her thighs. She wondered what would happen if she were to shed her clothes before poor Heinrik here, and proceed into the water.

Some time later I found myself in Plymouth by the English sea, in a university lecture theatre, reading from this story, published in the visual and literary fiesta, Short Fiction 

M O N T G O M E R Y  A K U O F O,  F A T H E R  O F  T W I N S

He was sitting at an empty chop bar on the roadside, waiting for the French woman’s green car. He took out the mobile phone she had bought him. Just this morning, Faustina had called from the village and told him she was expecting twins, his twins. They are two boys, she had said with much enthusiasm. Twins had not visited their village for an age. He put the phone back in his pocket. The French woman drove past and he saw her son was not in the car. That was as good a sign as any.

By the time he reached her flat the woman had opened the door on the rooftop and unbottled the hot air in the rooms. He could feel the air shifting about, its hotness dusting his skin before it made its
escape. He heard her in the shower. He stripped off his shirt and ate a banana in the kitchen. Then he opened a cold beer from her fridge, sitting on her kitchen chair, his spirits mixed. He had stolen from her, just once. It was a photograph of her family which was sitting on the bookshelf. The daughter in Europe when she was a small girl, the hard-faced son a baby on her hip. She had asked him for it and he had lied. He had kept the photo for a while then thrown it in the gutter.

Montgomery, you’re here. She glanced at him sitting there, her eyes moving off his body. I should have called you. Miguel is on his way home with a friend. They stayed for a football match. I can’t see you now.

His hands hung either side of the chair. He felt his cock beginning to thicken in his jeans.

Look, you’d better get dressed. Don’t be angry with me. You know there’ll be other times.

Outside, yards below them, she frowned as the gate was cranked open. He lazily pulled on his shirt. On his way downstairs he passed a pair of giggling white ten-year-olds.

He walked back to Kojo’s house. He was glad he had drunken the beer. He thought of how the French woman spoke to Miguel in her language, sending him downstairs to play with the neighbourhood kids, something the whites rarely did. He couldn’t understand why she didn’t have a man of her own and he had asked her and she had tried to explain it to him. I loved a man very much, but he didn’t want to live with me. I loved another and he used to hit me hard. When she whimpered, he held her, stroked her, trying to imagine these men’s faces.

Kojo’s brother was sick in the hospital and Kojo had to bring him food. Montgomery sat down, pulled out his phone. There were no calls. The French woman put credit on his phone but she did not give him cash. Just once, she had paid his bus fare back to the village. He called her.


This is Montgomery.

Er, hello. Is there anything wrong?

Come and meet me for a drink.

You know I can’t. Not tonight.

My girlfriend is pregnant. The girl from the village. She is having twins.

Oh, Montgomery! That’s quite a piece of news. Are you upset? I hope she is well. I don’t know what to say to you. I have to go now. I’m really sorry, try to understand.

I love you, Mona.

Yes, Montgomery. Yes.

He was hungry. He had shown her where they grilled tilapia and served it with banku. He had shown her where they served atcheke from Ivory Coast. He had taken her to Circle at night and made her bump next to him on the dance floor. They had eaten at Honest Chef afterwards and she moved his hand between her legs in the taxi all the way home. If she were younger, he would give her a baby.

He left Kojo’s and began to walk towards Rawlings Park. He would get there after nightfall. There his old aunt would feed him.

Faustina called him again in the morning.

Monty Monty Monty, oh my Montgomery. How is your work? she asked him. He knew she was sitting in a booth in the tiny communications centre in the sun, sweat down her back, her wide eyes far apart. Faustina was an easy woman to have, she opened wide and her passage clasped him, pulling him hard. Then she pushed him off, her hair sticking up, her waistbeads slack, she always went to piss and he heard her. After that he liked to put his fingers deep in her wet bush and she
crooned and grunted. He used to work for the Indians, moving boxes of stereo players from one shop to another, being told to step aside for Sanjay when he came in with his driver from his big house on the new estate. But they had sent him on weeks ago.

My work is fine, he said to her.


And what?

Your sons!

I don’t know anything about these sons. How do I know they are mine? he said sorely. His aunt had given him pito to drink last night.

Don’t be so foolish, she said and cut the line.

He took some money from his aunt and walked through Rawlings Park. He set out to the trotro stop for Labadi Beach and soon enough pushed onto a revving bus. As the vehicle tore along Ring Road and some older ladies from Nungua began calling out to the driver to slow down, he knew inside of him the twins were his own. Faustina said she had a tummy now, that you could see it was growing fast. She even felt them turning, squabbling, somersaulting like two small barracuda fish at sea. He jumped off at the beach and walked through the parking lot. He bought a beer at one of the bars, sitting down on a flaky white chair. He looked at his phone again. There were no calls.

He watched the waves slapping on the sand, each one slightly different from the last. One fatter, one thin and dribbling at the top, then a rush of three at once. The water was grey and thin like soup with no wele in it. He saw his sons’ faces swimming inside of Faustina’s fat stomach with its belly button thick and yellow and turned out. He would have go back to the village and buy things for her. A basket for the little ones. Cloth for the naming ceremony. Minerals and money for the priest. Sanjay never gave him his last pay. But now he was ashamed to go back to the Indians. The Indians with their stereo sets in boxes, their fans with plastic bags over their tin basket heads, who had sent him on because there had never been any need for him in the first place, just to move aside when Sanjay came in with the driver, to check for thieves from the market, to move the boxes and fans from shop to shop or back inside at night.

The French woman had told him many times over that her daughter Nathalie was a photographer in Paris. She had shown him black and white photos. They were of people staring back at her, people with long lives, old women in stuffed chairs, a man on a ladder. There was a woman in a park with a needle in her arm, her eyes black and lost and a dog waiting by her dirty feet. Her nipples pushed up through her T-shirt. A tree swept over her and a man glanced back but was already walking onwards to the apartment blocks after the fence. Mona was so proud of this shot. She said it had won a prize. But it left Montgomery in despair. Why hadn’t Nathalie called the hospital? Why was the woman outside in the cold with the waiting dog? Why was the man walking past to the buildings on the other side? Mona had showed him other shots of men who were not men. His heart quickened when she showed him these. They were men with shaven heads with kohl around their eyes. Men in a bar grouped around a tiny Brazilian or half-blood man in a sparkling dress, who was hooting into the air. Afterwards they came into his head, these people. The drug addict and her dog, the Brazilian man in the dress, the old embattled white men with their makeup. They touched him and he wondered what Europe would be like: the wet parks with tall trees, the never-ending buildings and shops with their scrolls and windows, the faces cowering over him, giving him food and fucking him in the mouth, and he would look down and see he was wearing women’s clothes.

He told Mona he wanted to marry her. She smiled at him, her long deep smile with the lip curving downward on one side into her furry obroni skin. He rubbed her nipple which grew taut like the woman in the photograph. He squeezed the small bud hard in his two fingers and watched her gasp, plunged his fingers into her.

I love you Mona.

**Do buy a copy of Short Fiction journal if you are a lover of fine writing and dazzling illustrations. You'll also read the prize-winning piece by Rachel Fenton (super-fine company and co-reader) and support the efforts of editors Anthony Caleshu and Tom Vowler, writers who are actively keeping literature alive.