For those of you who the name Adam O’Riordan doesn’t ring any bells then this review is for you; firstly, you are going to discover a wonderfully talented writer who is also a talented poet; who’s beautifully poignant collection ‘In the Flesh’ should be a must for your books to read in 2017; plus, you will also be discovering a gifted raconteur who is able to seamlessly move into the short story genre, flexing his undeniable talent with barely any bumps along the path.
The anthology kicks off with the slow burning ‘A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica’ which was a gentle tease for the reader into what was and is a magnificent anthology. The story centres upon Harvey and his relationship with the elusive, attractive temptress Teresa. Harvey is our alien in LA, and if Sting’s song ‘Englishman in New York’ had been altered to ‘Englishman in LA’; you would appropriately sum up Harvey’s life; his quaint Britishness shines out of the piece, leaving him searching for somewhere to belong on those dark and lonely nights when his sole purpose for being in LA is his relationship to Teresa who as circumstances transpire ends up being on the other side of the world, back in ‘his’ England. The stories closing stages are beautifully written when we see Harvey sitting alone in a bar trying to belong and waiting for the coming storm. When you realise that not a lot happens you suddenly realise that O’Riordan has masterfully held your attention with his ability as a raconteur, he leads the reader and you can’t help but be taken along for the journey.
‘When they hit turbulence Harvey was sleeping. The map on the headrest screen was the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes. They were somewhere over northern Canada. The jolt was so hard it lifted him from his seat, his lap belt biting into the top of his pelvis. He glanced to his right and saw and saw Nick gripping his armrests, bracing himself against the movements of the plane. The plane was rattling harder now, throwing passengers from side to side. Harvey heard a sharp intake of breath from an air-hostess as she pulled herself along the aisle to the jump seat. He watched as she exchanged a brief and unmistakably fearful glance with her colleague in the aisle opposite. Now the noise of the engines increased as if struggling to keep the plane airborne. Harvey knew something was terribly wrong.’
It’s not very often that I am left speechless by a short story but ‘The El Segundo Blue Butterfly’ did just that. I will go as far to say that this is the best short story I’ve read this year; and probably the best short story I have ever read. The subject of our story is Christopher and the chapters within this story separate expanses of time in his life; the first of these being about a fourteen-year-old Michael who for his school magazine has to interview Michael Hogan Bernstein. The story benefits from a masterstroke by O’Riordan who uses a devise known as narrative cohesion to get the reader hooked and pulled in for the long-haul whilst also being emotionally invested in the story, the arrestingly brilliant structure decisions of having each chapter being an allotted time period during his life spanning his career and his relationship with Michael Hogan Bernstein which is expanded upon within each chapter culminating in a quite beautiful conclusion, making this a must read for anyone who loves the short story. Actually anyone who loves to read. It’s that good.
‘We sit in silence with the pizza between us. I look down at the blistered dough. He takes a bite, chews it slowly, then sips from a plastic cup full of warm Coca-Cola. The red party cup trembling as he brings it to his lips. I tell him I like his jacket. Yeah, it’s real nice, he says. Then like he’s recalling some language he doesn’t quite understand, says, ‘Oleg Cassini’. Je shows me the label, hanging from the frayed lining. His eyes brightened for a moment. ‘He was a friend of mine you know, a close personal friend,’ he says. Then he pauses. ‘Just like you, Christopher, just like you.’
The story left me in a weird state of nirvana (not the grunge band) but with the feeling of enlightenment, a feeling of joy, seeing a story so full of grace nowadays is a rarity and that’s what’s so amazing about the story and about grace. You can’t help but be emotionally invested in this story and I found myself wanting to share it with other people immediately after finishing it. The story is bloody fantastic and morally anchored to how I believe we all should be; it shows us just how we should be with people we meet in life, people who we serve, who serve us, those who might not deserve anything from us but we offer grace and give it freely as Christopher does; in small but powerful ways. It’s about who we are when no ones watching. It’s a story that I believe makes the heart glad and the reader feeling a sense of wholeness when finished.
The short story ‘Rambla Pacifico’ was a little gritty and had the feeling of a pulp fiction novel / The Departed cinematic feel to it. The short story itself could have been snap shots taken directly from a full length novel; the characters were well so well rounded I could have quite happily stayed in this world for a lot longer than O’Riordan permits, which is a small bug-bare I had with this particular story. O’Riordan draws us in superbly to a quick paced hostage negotiation (situation) where he expertly keeps things hidden about his characters from the reader so ‘we’ are not quite sure who should be trusted or not and how the whole thing is going to pan out. It’s a uniquely different story compared to the others within this anthology, which I feel helps it stand out. It’s a detailed story with lots of moving parts, which as I mentioned would have been nice to see the plight and conclusions of each character or their characters expanded upon with back-story so we learn more about the shifty characters that make up this story. If O’Riordan were to expand this story either into a novella or a novel I would be first in line to purchase a copy; I felt that O’Riordan invested a lot of time into these complex characters and plot and it all just seemed a little crammed, instead of being afforded the space to grow.
‘He turned at the doorway to see Jesus wiping his hands on his apron, then pulling down the tattered sheets of fabric that had been pinned at the windows. The men squinted as light poured into the room. Jesus walked to the door they had entered through and help it open for Lindstrom. Lindstrom heard the lock click closed when he was out in the corridor.
As he carried Adella down the fire escape, Lindstrom tried not to listen to the noises coming from inside the room. As they neared the street below Lindstrom heard the sound of the police service revolver discharging once, twice, then after a brief pause, for a third time, after which there was silence.’
‘Wave-Riding Giants’ is a subtle tale old tale which charts the life of McCauley, who is in a senior housing complex. It reminded me slightly of the Film ‘The Green Mile’ which was originally written by Stephen King. Both have a lovely raconteur vibe about them, Kings version has an old prison guard reflecting on his life on Death Row; O’Riordan’s version has McCauley reminiscing about his life from his vantage point in the housing complex. The opening of the story showcases O’Riordan’s emotive style which is so often expressed within his poetry and it’s delightful to see this being expressed in the short story genre with such aplomb. ‘Wave-Riding Giants’ is another highlight in a brilliant debut collection of short stories from O’Riordan; seeing McCauley’s journey from a young boy to faithful and dutiful husband span only a few pages but told in such a sensitive way the reader can’t help but feel like they have also experienced his highs and lows and feels connected with the protagonist McCauley.
‘As McCauley walked up the pathway that led up to the house, he saw Dolores drip to her knees, and then lost sight of her behind the kitchen counter. He saw Moe leaning back, spreading his large hands across the kitchen counter. Then Moe’s cousin running his hand through Dolores’ hair. McCauley saw the cousin’s hand tightly at her jaw, the way you might fit a muzzle on to a greyhound. The next thing McCauley saw was Dolores’ hand gripping at the counter. This came into focus as he walked up the path. McCauley remembered how Moe’s head was tipped now and how his Adam’s apple was bobbing up and down as he swallowed hard. And as quickly as it had happened, Dolores up and laughing and then both men taking her by the wrists and pulling her into the bedroom at the front of the house. McCauley froze outside, halfway along the path and through window screens looked on for what might have been seconds or hours at the blurred shapes the three of them made.’
‘Black Bear in the Snow’ focused on the life of Randal and Thelma and their baby after these introductions we are treated to a flashback of Randal going on a hunting trip with his father. It’s here in ‘Black Bear in the Snow’ that O’Riordan expresses his visionary gifting and fully emerses us to what the world was like for Randal. Here is just a small snippet from a story full of these deft touches. ‘When they had reached their destination, they pulled away the trimmed pin stems that covered the mouth of the hide. They had hunkered down in the smell of wet soil and stale piss that Lambrey, who his father served with in the Marines and now ran the lodge, had led his father to the day before. We flash forwards to reveal that Randal and Thelma have separated Joey their son is living with Thelma and her lawyer partner Cody; whom Randal has often overheard his son calling him dad. So wanting to re-connect with his son Randal decides to take him away for a bonding session. This part of the story is well written and the prose deployed by O’Riordan easily whisked me away with the two of them, the awkwardness of it, the desperate acts of trying to connect; Randal had me reminiscing of a time I went out with my father to shoot guns at clay pigeons (never before had we shot guns but for some reason this made us connect at a more primitive way – Me Man. Me Make Fire.), the smell of gun smoke and the cold biting my face and fingers and the ringing in my ears. The conclusion to the story was very emotive and I found myself moved by the way O’Riordan was able to bring it all to its conclusion in such a poignant and thought provoking way. Having his son killing the bear was almost reminiscent of his son laying to rest the memory and hold that his father had over his life. And now it’s returning full circle.
The short story ‘The Burning Ground’ lives up to the title, it’s a story that follows the life of an artist who has an affair with Alannah (who becomes somewhat of a muse during their yearlong affair). When Alannah goes back to her husband, our aging Artist decides to head out to America, for a fresh break, some inspiration to run away; we don’t know why but when he arrives he finds a resurgence in fame and popularity of his work. But through all this he is constantly reminded of Alannah through his paintbrushes that she bought him during their affair. ‘The Burning Ground’ is a slow burner but again another that fits so wonderfully within this collection by ‘DEBUT’ short story writer Adam O’Riordan.
‘They made love at first on the camp bed and then on a patchwork quilt laid on the cold linoleum floor, an old horse blanket by their feet. Gripping at the curves of her hip bones as the gas heater burned on nearby. Looking down at his own body; slackened with age into folds of formless skin, its contours of tightly packed wrinkles and puckering. The sounds of a London afternoon outside, schoolchildren shouting excitedly as they waited for the bus and the sound of the fast train passing on the bridge. Afterwards, he traced the outline of her swimming costume across the soft of her lower back before she rolled away from him and sat up, pulling the blanket over her knees.’
With ‘’98 Mercury Sable’ It’s here that I thought O’Riordan may have given me something negative to say; as the story starts out describing cars. If anyone knows me, I hate cars; all I know about them is that they have four wheels and you can drive around in them. Colour. Make. Model. Mileage. All of this means nothing to me. But Adam O’Riordan once again has written a story I found impossible to forget, a story that is different from the several before in tone and conclusion. The story focuses on married couple Sebastian and Sofia and their twins; there are some funny excerpts around Sebastian trying to learn how to drive and his numerous failings, but it is the ending of the story which makes the impact, I won’t spoil it for you but the ending hits you right in the face! I don’t use this word often but it was a tour de force O’Riordan handles masterfully. It left me physically shocked. If you can say that about a story, you’ve got yourself a good story!
‘A week after my A Levels, I’d failed for speeding. I’d got it into my head that the bearded, bear-like examiner looked like a paedophile, which had really thrown me. It’s amazing what stress can do. The next time was a decade later in Norwich, where Sophia was directing a play. The examiner, a friendly tall man with protruding front teeth and a luminous safety jacket, had just finished a cigarette when we got into the car. You lucky bastard, I thought. I’d given up a week earlier, which, in retrospect, was too much to take on, what with the driving as well.’
I found the format of ‘Magda’s a Dancer’ really disappointing and I felt a little cheated; having been spoilt with the incredible offerings from O’Riordan prior to this story. The prose of the story is a conversation, which in itself is very witty, interesting, insightful and something that is different from the rest of the anthology; I just felt that it was slightly jarring from the tenderness that O’Riordan had afforded other stories. To have this one appearing more like a script it was a shock to the system, which I wasn’t ready to enjoy. It felt a little out of place and that’s personal taste really as having read the story a couple of times now it’s a great piece of writing; I just thought it didn’t fit within the final collection.
‘He looked like he knew what he was doing.’
‘You think, Zack? He reminded me of that extra from our show, after we transferred.
What was his name?’
‘I know who you mean. Same smile. But hey, at least he’d got her up to his apartment.’
‘But they were going down.’
‘He’s probably still getting over the divorce. These things take time.’
‘Zachary, that’s cruel. Julia! Where did you get that?’
‘A bloke in the 7-Eleven.’
‘Good work! Need a light?’
‘I’ll use the cooker. Zack, finish your story.’
‘Where was I?’
‘You were about to murder an actress.’
Thanks, Harry. Shall we open one of these?’
I’ve found this collection such a delight to read as each story has been so different from the next, skilfully delivered and written in such an original, intelligent and modern way that the reader can’t help but be taken along for the ride.
So ‘The Burning Ground’ has everything an anthology needs for success; with varying subject matter, fantastic writing, accomplished storytelling whether this is in the longer or shorter stories and a mastery of the language. O’Riordan has made the step up from poetry to short story writer with self-assurance and style, from the beautiful cover to the words held within, ‘The Burning Ground’ will be one of the best anthologies released in 2017, make no doubts about it.
‘The Burning Ground’ has everything needed to burn up all the competition. O’Riordan’s fuel for this are his delicately told short stories, the oxygen is his powerfully emotive and intelligently woven subjects of his stories; packing the heat and which completes our fire triangle is how ‘you’ as a reader are changed, warmed and feel completed by reading them. It’s a tremendous accomplishment stepping out into a new genre and blowing up the competition, something truly brilliant exists within ‘The Burning Ground’.
Adam O’Riordan was born in Manchester in 1982 and read English at Oxford University. In 2008 O’Riordan became the youngest Poet-in-Residence at The Wordsworth Trust, the Centre for British Romanticism. His first collection ‘In the Flesh’ (Chatto and Windus) won a Somerset Maugham Award in 2011. He is Lecturer in Poetry Writing at the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.
The Burning Ground was published by Bloomsbury Books on 12th January 2017.
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Review by Ross Jeffery
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