FICTION IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
2 Where You Find It by Janice Galloway, Cape pounds 9.99. In this new short story collection a lot of people are trying very hard to be in love - often in the face of dismal odds and all common sense. While one woman yearns for the phone call of her bisexual boyfriend, tormenting herself with daydreams of his gay pick-ups, another tries to foist her home-made pizza on to a busy policeman searching for a peeping Tom (who could just be her partner).

Galloway's prose is nicely varied to capture her unpredictable range of protagonists, from accountant stifled by working from home in exclusive domestic bliss with his wife to the heroine of "valentine", so "terminally raddled with love" she feigns delight in the feathery underwear her man considers as much a part of Valentine's Day as the satiny cards so padded with foam they can't sit upright.

If the women here generally come out looking needier, then men are seen as the bigger prats: tutting in pity at the "sentimental" urge to motherhood, yet baiting partners with trivial lies and undone chores that elicit nagging "just like mum's".

But it is not all naughty boys and sex tiffs. Things become far more sinister when Galloway chillingly adopts the voice of a bullying child abuser in "someone had to do it" or reveals through the consciousness of a young lad in denial that he is feeding his little brother fish and chips in the same room where their father sits a corpse in the corner.

There are times when Galloway seems to make an excessive virtue of verbal economy, as if wondering how many words she can pare from a scene and still have it make sense. This results in a kind of poetic overload, as does a tunnel-vision effect she achieves through focusing hard on imagery in such stories as "after the rain", a hallucinatory vision of people sprouting like vegetables in the sunshine narrated through a fragmented psyche, or "he dreams of pleasing his mother" in which the sleeper watches his mum climb into a red juggernaut in preparation to running him over.

My preference is for the waggish ventriloquism of the more direct confessional voices as in the hilarious title story, where a woman describes her Derek's extraordinary kissing style. Despite lips that "don't look like they'd sustain much at all, like worm husks" (and when did you last kiss a worm husk?), Derek "opens his face so wide you think he's choking on something" and performs feats labial and lingual that make her count her blessings. "It's worth bearing in mind," says Derek's girl, "you don't get everything in this life. Good kissers don't grow on trees."

Maggie Traugott

2 Cold Snap by Thom Jones, Faber pounds 8.99. In his back-page acknowledgments, the author thanks a friend for "expanding the narrow spectrum of happiness that is available to such gloomy, hypochondriacal existentialists as myself". Expanded or no, the spectrum that Thom Jones's second collection of stories occupies is still a narrow one, but far from colourless. His far-flung characters are forever rifling through pharmaceutical treasure-chests packed with lithium, morphine and Stelazine, looking for the answer to physical ailments which seem allied to their surroundings - usually starving Africa or bloated USA - but are, more often than not, simply distractions from incurable angst.

Jones has an amazing ear for the tremor behind the loud-mouth patter of his loners and fading toughsters. The rough-edged humour is, in fact, a sophisticated defence mechanism against overwhelming suffering (aid- worker Ad Magic "had seen his share of Third World bullshit, but Rwanda was the topper"). Sometimes the enforced insensitivity is overplayed: a story about a virginal Aboriginal female drag-racer backfires, as does one about a disabled woman attempting suicide ("God what if she ended up in a horrible pile of shit on the other side?"). Male drift in the big wide world is Jones's forte - that and surreal commentary on the human jungle, courtesy of articulate parrots, an alcoholic baboon and a tobacco- inhaling spider. It's almost a shock to see Jones expressing a debt to others for source material. So convincing is the pin-sharp detail that you forget to credit the power of a highly individual imagination.

Dominic Cavendish

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