BOOK FICTION: omen's vile bodies

Click to follow
THE FEMINISTS GO SWIMMING by Michael Collins, Phoenix House pounds 8.99

THE BLURB to this collection of stories promises us "darkly funny" tales "full of humour", that will provoke "laughter". That's sugaring the pill a bit too much. Horror, outrage, excess, yes, we are given in plenty. But not barrels of laughs.

The book fizzes with ferocity, painting a picture of both city and country life in Ireland as rotten and corrupt, spoiled and bruised, hopeless beyond despair. Ugliness rules: "He drove slowly through the new estate, a grim, grey, proletarian dream of poured concrete, little identical houses save for the colour you decided to paint your front door or the flowers you planted in your walled-in postage stamp of a garden, or the colour of your hand-basin. And rough pebble-dash facades, like spewed grey vomit. Some great democracy."

Murphy, the narrator here, makes a bid for a spot of weekend adultery, abandoning his "white lump" of a wife who has a fat arse and fawns like a dog in poses of "calculated lewdness" in favour of birdlike, immodest Louise who ruins everything by sympathising with the wife and feeling guilty. Murphy splutters and curses splendidly, and farce rises eventually to the heights of grand guignol, with one annoying farmer run over and Murphy musing on how to rid himself of the pathetic, whimpering Louise.

En route to disaster, they encounter a suitably revolting priest: "The priest's mouth half-opened with a mulch of crisp. When he ate, he brought his lips to the fore like a baboon." The priest spells out his theology on women: "Although it is sinful for a man to rape a woman, it is also sinful for a man not to have the physical strength necessary to rape a woman ... They're the weaker sex, for the love of Jesus, do I have to spell it out for you?"

Not a single priest in this collection of stories escapes being branded as gross and hypocritical. The Catholic church, and its exploitative misuse of power, is one of Collins' favourite targets. Satire is too soft a word for the rage he expresses, the relish with which he denounces these monstrous clerics. Nuns come off equally badly. I certainly did laugh at the grotesque portrait of the Mother Superior who runs the institution imprisoning the walking saint of one story's title. I'd forgotten that marvellous hoary cliche, as I've tried to forget the grim-faced despots who ruled our lives at convent school. There's a certain pleasure in seeing these villains get their come-uppance.

The exuberant disgust propelling the writing recalls Martin Amis, the commitment to anger as inspiration. Irish dirty realism meets Cold Comfort Farm; the only jokes allowed are bitter, scowling ones. The cruelty and savagery of life is so terrible that a compassionate stance has to be abandoned. The only way out is over the top. So Collins has to pile on the gore, the madness, the dead bodies, in order to display the ruthless pecking order of men beating up weaker men, boys, and their wives. The women's crime is to be stupid and sodden with religion; superstitiously creeping and crawling; sad, contemptible victims of violence. Rarely have I read such powerful accounts of masculine scorn of women as creatures less than human.

When the women fight back, they're either lampooned as foolish, spouting women's magazine slogans they're too idiotic to understand, or they turn into nasties like the Mother Superior. In "The Feminists go Swimming", a bunch of these man-haters turns up to try and ruin the peaceful daily nude swim of a group of friends benefiting from a male-only beach. Collins dishes out his insults impartially, in terms of pitiless close-ups of these ageing men's unpretty physiques, feeble emotional sparring and general bewilderment, but he does at least allow the men to be characters, with names and personalities, while the women who bring tragedy in their train remain caricatures: "a monstrous woman's grotesque breasts hung ... she too wore a hideous bathing cap ... the heavy woman on the end moved on her elephantine legs." These adjectives are too easily found. Most of the time the writing is so energetically brilliant that you forgive Michael Collins for sometimes going on too long and too loudly.