Dreams of old irons : BOOKS : FICTION

BOYFRIENDS AND GIRLFRIENDS by Douglas Dunn, Faber £14.99
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The Independent Culture
DOUGLAS DUNN is a senior and prizewinning poet with nine collections to his name, and this is his second book of short stories. Like the last lot, they work like oblique, restrained poems. The first half has a safe, restricted palette, modest obse rvation cloaking strong-muscled thought. "A lot of just about everything observed in a short space of time involving very little effort", as one story describes its own landscape. The chosen arc of the world is small-town Scotland, late '80s style, a lar gely unemployed rural community clinging to the old ways, the old electric iron, the old brown paper. Keep up the garden, fold your clothes, watch your neighbours, oil the gate. The language is water-clear: no pretension, no sudden revelation or twist in the tail biting the hand that fed the plot. Everything just suddenly stops: and you see that the story was not about what or who you thought. The point is the nuances of relationship and community, meshed in the inconclusiveness of experience, worked out through beautifully controlled voices of dialogue and description.

But there is a surprise halfway through: the surreal squeak of a mouse, first-person narrator of a story set in a French villa rented to grousey Angloids, introducing the neo-fantasist bite of the brilliant second half. Here one wonderfully savage story lands us among elderly ex-Fabian picnickers: Celticness and Scotland become spiritual lavatory for pampered English looniness. In another, the widow of a famous war-poet sits on his work and letters, running her little treadmill of a life by in-terior quotes from love-poems only she knows.

The highlight is a hilarious and tender story, "Toddle-Bonny and the Bogeyman", about an irritating dimwit who lays newspaper-cuttings on the double bed in his dead parents' bedroom, relaying local Labour Party gossip into their room before locking it. Aforeign businessman, a "Midas of hard times", has bought the paper-bag factory where his dad once worked. Fifty jobs are on offer, manufacturing deodorised insoles. Question for the nationalists: accept ("Fifty jobs put jam on toast") or censure? The story is a lesson in how to write political, with a gentle face but a Hillyard-like jeweller's hand. Every paragraph here is honed, funny, telling. Pomposity, the English, the poll-tax, hypocrisy, ingratiatingness: there are a lot of targets for the laughs. But every word Dunn writes comes over as profoundly felt.