Picador, £14.99, 160pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Ten Stories About Smoking, By Stuart Evers
Friday 15 April 2011
Real Work", one of the ten tales in Stuart Evers's collection, starts with the line, "You had a theory that heaven is the constant repetition of the happiest moment of your life". That suggests it's a story told in the second person, a literary device often employed as a shortcut to authenticity. In fact, it's a story partly about authenticity.
Ben's girlfriend is an artist; together they move to Dalston. The trouble with satirising East London artists is they're beyond satire. You might come up with the idea of a room full of hats on wire and, sure enough, next week someone will be showing just that in some Bethnal Green gallery. Ben escapes for a week's holiday and is tempted to sleep with Lancastrian Emma, who reflects on her ex-husband's moods and tantrums: "Give him a beer and a blowie and he were fine."
I live in Lancashire and I've never heard it called that, but that doesn't matter, because it sounds right; it feels authentic. Maybe the story is about the gap between what feels authentic and what is authentic. Mary, you sense, at least in the opinion of the narrator, neither feels authentic, nor is authentic, but in a sense her very inauthenticity makes her authentic. If that makes sense.
Two or three stories are less effective. "Underground" plays the same card Iain Banks played in his story, "Piece", but in a different game. Whether it works or not is a question of taste. "Lou Lou in the Blue Bottle" should work: the characters come alive, the locations smell right, but there's no magic. One or two stories feel like exercises – successful ones, like the brilliant mimicking of different voices in "The Final Cigarette" – but still exercises.
The best stories here have what can't be taught in class or absorbed from reading: authenticity. The sadness that infuses "What's in Swindon?", which nails not only the Wiltshire town but also the idea of rekindling an old relationship, is real and confers authenticity on those stories where you might wonder if this author is experienced enough to know this depth of sadness and disappointment. He knows it all right. In "Things Seem So Far Away Here", his understanding of a childless auntie is remarkable, and "The Best Place in Town", which is the best story in the book, is surprising, sad, funny, frightening and thrilling. It works like a dream.
Of course, these are not really ten stories about smoking. That's just fancy marketing. This is the extremely promising debut of a serious short-story writer, whose work would be just as powerful sold in plain packaging.
Nicholas Royle's short story collection 'Mortality' is published by Serpent's Tail
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