Screwtop Thompson, By Magnus Mills

A Kafkaesque menace lurks between the lines of these comic gems about mundane lives
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Magnus Mills unerringly sharp eye for human foibles combines with a dry, deadpan wit to create comic genius. His first novel, the 1999 Booker- and Whitbread-shortlisted The Restraint of Beasts, twinned the trials of a foreman supervising two work-shy fence builders with a series of manslaughters. His sixth, The Maintenance of Headway, drew on his experience as a bus driver to create a world of lugubrious officials and petty rules. His two collections of short stories, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly (1999) and Once in a Blue Moon (2003), are here reissued, together with three new tales, in a single volume.

The lesser space afforded by the short-story format for the build up of Mills's deliciously dark satire is a loss, but his spare prose and the meaning between the lines – his readers interpret rather than being fed – are still a pleasure to savour. As in his novels, the mundane is often allegory for deeper issues.

In "Only When the Sun Shines Brightly" the narrator describes, with typical detachment, the efforts expended by others to try and remove a noisy eyesore, only to conclude at the end that he missed it when it was gone. It voices a similar sentiment to Mills' last novel: people battle to impose rigid order, yet often a disordered world reaches its own calm equilibrium.

In "The Comforter", a benevolent arch-deacon radiates goodwill but is too absent-minded to absorb what people say. The menace in Mills' stories is not spelt out, but when the officious chairman of a tedious all-day meeting barks "You'll be expected to come in tomorrow, and the next day, and every day after that", there festers, beneath the superficial rustic English innocence, a threatening undertone, reminiscent of Kafka, of being sucked into a life devoid of free will. A similar air of malice imbues "The Good Cop", in which the narrator is in an interrogation room. Why is he there? Who is the "he" to whom the cop refers? Why does the narrator's innocuous revelation of the cop's mistake unleash the latter's violence? This could be read as an indictment of the propensity of even the good to attack when wrong.

"Hark the Herald" is a creepy tale of a man spending Christmas at a B&B run by an ostensibly obsequious proprietor. Despite sounds of partying and the proprietor's assurances, no other guests are glimpsed. Mills' talent for depicting power-play glitters: the proprietor's fawning attention is at odds with his begrudging words: "I suppose we could do you a cold plate at a push."

The title story recalls how, counter to popular amnesia, Christmas as a child could be a grim ordeal of squabbles and disappointment. Farce mingles with childhood savagery when the toy of the title arrives minus a head. Wicked humour recurs in "A Public Performance", when a teenager imagines a second-hand coat lends him panache.

There are one or two stories that feel incomplete – "Once in a Blue Moon" indulges Mills' taste for the marriage of banal and bizarre but it feels rushed, while "Vacant Possession" reveals the easy male camaraderie and routine of his novels but lacks the space to allow the characters to develop or the wry observations to crystallise.

Like the buses, Mills is maintaining headway by spacing his novels judiciously – despite his fans' impatience. But in the run-up to the next long journey, these stories offer thought-provoking short escapes.