Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Border Lines by John Walsh

Border Lines by John Walsh  (2012, 127 pages)

The Irish Quarter:  A Celebration of the Irish Short Story
March 11 to July 1

Please consider participating in The Irish Quarter.    All you need do if you are interested is to post on a Irish short story or a related matter and let me know about it.   There are links to 1000s of Irish Short stories on the resources page, some older stories and some brand new.   Guest posts are very welcome.    

 I have never had the pleasure of being in Ireland but I do I know Galway for sure has more than its share of great writers.   Posting on collections of short stories by the same author presents a challenge, to me at least, as when you read through the collection you tend to quickly look for commonality in the stories rather than looking at the works one at a time.    My approach on a collection is to post on a number of the stories individually  and indulge in an overview at the conclusion of my post.   I think this shows respect for the artist and if I were pondering buying or investing my time in a collection of short stories this is what I would want in a post.   

I first became acquainted with the work of John Walsh when I posted on his wonderful short story "Hawk", from his collection of stories, Border Lines.   I have now read the full collection  and it was just as good as "Hawk" promised it would be.  Irish short stories often have a very strong sense of place, the best ones allow us to see the world in a grain of sand and this is what the stories in Border Lines do for us.

"A Day Like Today"  (8 pages)

"A Day Like Today" is a very powerful story about growing up and not growing up.   It is about how a boy grows into a man and why some run from the idea.   As the story opens Uncle Roy is taunting the narrator of the story, a boy maybe in his midteens, to make a dangerous jump.  He makes the jump and breaks his leg.  He spends the next two weeks on crutches.   Uncle Roy and his father work as chippies.  (Based on the context I am guessing this is Irish slang for a construction worker of some sort.)   Uncle Roy talks to him like he is an adult, or so he thinks.  It might be Uncle Roy is still a teenage boy in his mind.   Uncle Roy gets an OK job in a factory working as a carpenter.   Everybody in the family is happy as they think he might settle down.   Uncle Roy has another dream, to play in a band in the big city.  One day he quits his job and tells the family he is leaving to be in a band.   He tells the boy that he does not want to be trapped in the factory all his job, he asks the boy if he wants more.   We are there when the Belfast train takes Uncle Roy away.   In a blink of an eye thirty years go by.  I will not tell the ending of the story but it is just perfect.   We wonder what happened in those thirty years, maybe we think we know, maybe we don't.  That is real life and Walsh captures it perfectly.

"Jimi" (2 pages)

Trivia of the day, one of Jimmy Hendrix's grandfathers was Irish.   Hendrix played in Belfast in 1967 so we know when this story happened.   We wonder why to going the Jimmi Hendrix concert made the father so mad?   Was he a racist?   Does the loud music bother him?   Does he see concerts as places where people do drugs and such.   It took a long time for father and son to rebuild their closeness but eventually they do.   We learn the boy had  left the house for the night without telling anyone to go to see Hendrix because he feared his parents would not allow it.  That is why the father was, in part, so mad.   Really the story is about, I think, the liberation from drab routines that Hendrix symbolizes.   This is very good story, maybe you have to be of a certain age to understand what Hendrix meant.   

"Such A Good Invention"  (5 pages)

"Such A Good Invention" is the story of a young man, Ian, on the last day of his holiday and he plans to make the most of it.   He is not in Ireland, but somewhere tropical where they have palm and mango trees and a view of the ocean. ( I found this very interesting as we have all this on our family property here in the Philippines.)   He is on a beach and he looks up and sees a flock of Geese . There are fourteen geese in the flight.   He believes that seeing seven geese in a flight will make a wish come true and he hopes this means he will have two wishes come true.     We return with Ian back to his job in London.  He works as a professional translator, sitting in front of a computer all day long.   His boss is a bully and he originally planned this just to be a summer job but there are no jobs back home so he accepts it knowing one of them will move on.   Now the story gets interesting, not to say it was  not already interesting but when you read it you will know what I mean.   One day he is out for a stroll and he comes upon a young woman with a sketching pad.   She smiles when she sees him.   Her skin looks like she might be from California.   He talks to her.   She is traveling around a bit doing sketches.   She is big into Wordsworth and the Lake country.   Leaving out some very interesting dialogue and some even more interesting erotic activity, one of the man's two dreams comes true but the other does not.    
The story ends in a very interesting, philosophical vein.   

"A Different Story"  (4 pages)

If you are a man and you find this story erotic at all you should be ashamed of yourself, I was so ashamed I read it twice.   My attention was fully gripped with the first line of the story, told in the first person by a female hitchhiker picked up by a sexual predator.  I would like to quote the first line of the story but I might find my blog reclassified  as adult if I did so.  Maybe the woman narrowly escapes something terrible by doing what she does.   Walsh makes this all very real for us.   I wondered what can be in the mind of the woman as parts from the man.   This is a dark story.  I liked it, maybe for some artistic reasons, maybe for some baser ones.   

"Border Lines (11 pages)  "Lyn and I grew up together".

I had to read the title story once I read the title line (quoted above) as my wife's name is Lyn.  I wish we had grown up together as I would be a better man than I am if this were true but it is my personal reason for liking this story.   This story told in the first person by the junior partner at a firm of solicitors is about the relationship of the man to his female friend Lyn.   He and Lyn never had a romance, he always got the feeling that she wanted her relationship with him to be permanent and men came and went in her life.  One day Lyn gets in a car wreck which is her fault and he gets her off with a light punishment.   His boss says he hopes Lyn knows how to show her appreciation!   He and Lyn make a date to meet at the Roadhouse in Bridgend.   They do end up in bed together.   All goes smashingly.   On the way to take her home he mentions that his boss wants a date with her.   At first Lyn seems a little put out that he can mention this so casually to her but he wants to act as if nothing has changed.   There is really a lot in this story and I hate to tell too much. The story moves to the court room with our narrator and another solicitor Mike.     We thought Mike had a younger sister who was a nun in Nigerian.  It turns out once she got there she quit the order and married or obtained a Nigerian boyfriend and has given birth to three children.   The police hate them for getting people off for offenses and as they pass one of the police in the court room calls Mike "Nigger's uncle.  Now we are back to Lyn who is interested in meeting Mike.   Lyn and Mike form a relationship.  The narrator knows Mike can one day give her a big house with a nice car and maybe he cannot.  But they continue seeing each other on the side anyway.   

"You Are Never Alone"  (6 pages)  "This is what got me about Germany.   Feeling guilty jaywalking in the middle of the night.   I caught myself checking if there was a police car nearby.  It explained a lot of things about the psyche, the history, the way people could look right through you as if you didn't exist".

"You Are Never Alone" is told by an Irishman working as a translator in Germany.   The money is more than he could make at home.  He has been out drinking (lots of drinking in the Irish short story) late at night and a man passes him in the street and asks to bum a cigarette off him, to his shock in a Dublin accent.   He then thinks if two Germans pass each other, even  on a narrow road in a forest, they will not speak or even look at each other.    .   He tells him that he really needs a woman.   Now this guy is starting to worry me a bit, is he just out of prison or what?   He says "They got brothels in this place?"   Then he catches on the other man is Irish.  Our narrator's first impulse is to get away from this man but I think he is so happy to run into a fellow Irishmen he ends up offering to walk him to the brothel, a legal enterprise in Germany, I take it.   Part of this story is about being Irish in Germany and universally about being a stranger in a strange land.   They begin to converse and he thinks how a German would consider any kind of question an invasion of privacy.   This very interesting to me as I sometimes think about how open to personal questions people from some countries are and how closed others are.    He says yes he is married.  The other man then says oh I guess you don't need to go to brothels.  He begins to think what a fine woman he has even though he really is not married.    The story takes an odd an interesting twist at the end.  I am pondering why the man did what he did.   I would like to give my opinion but I want readers to approach the story without knowing the ending.

"Winter Sun"  (4 pages)

"Winter Sun" is another story about a tropical vacation.   I live in a very tropical place but I can see how the Irish winter would make you crave a tropical vacation somewhere but I admit sometimes the cold weather of Ireland seems like it would be a wonderful change.   The story opens with a couple in a cafe.  The Cuban waiter at the cafe tells them he is not really a waiter, he is a physicist who probably had to leave Cuba for some reason.   Besides the waiter we also meet the narrator's sister-in-law Maeve who is along for the holiday, getting over a bad breakup and it sounds like this is not the first one for this drama queen.   The Cuban speaks sort of English and tells them how his heart was broken when his wife abandoned him and took their five year old daughter.   His vain hope is maybe in thirteen years the daughter will decide to come live with him.   Nothing much happens in this story but in just a very few wonderful pages Walsh has given us a pretty clear picture of the lives of four people.

"Sand"  (8 pages)  "The water is pleasant.  I focus on the rays of the sun sparkling across the surface onto my face, imagine a mystical point where everything meets.  And I am part of it.  It makes some kind of sense.  Like a Zen moment".

"Sand" is another story about a couple on vacation near the sea in a sunny place, in this case one of the Greek Islands.   As they walk the beach the male narrator notices a couple making love behind some rocks on the beach.   The setting is totally beautiful, the kind of place people dream about.    The relationship between the man and woman is really well depicted.   I really like the description of adventures the couple have.  The description of the feeling of laying in the surf letting the water hit you is just perfect, I recall feeling very much this feeling lying on the beach in Zambales letting the ocean come over me and driving the thoughts from my mind.   This is just a wonderful story in everyway.

"The Way Things Happen"  (7 pages)

"The Way Things Happen" is kind of a Galway American writing student there for a workshop meets older Galway writer version of the movie He Said, She Said.  Except in this case it should be He Wrote, She Wrote.  The story opens in the legendary bar and music venue the Roisin Dubh in Galway.   The story starts out being told by a man, we know he prefers the older version of Roisin Dubh (I never heard of it but for the power of Google).   He notices an attractive woman and he says "I like your hair" and she smiles".   The woman is in the bar, I guess it is on the tourist/visiting writer must see list, is there with some others from her writing work shop.   They just got back from a trip to the Aran Islands    The woman sizes up the man who complemented her hair "Charming wicked and kind of sad, all at the same time".  The man speaks to her again and he complements her on her hair once more, he says to himself she does have really great hair.   They are interested in each other and when she finds out he is a writer, maybe a blocked one, that pretty much seals it.   The story is narrated in interested brief segments, one by the man followed by the woman.   There is an interesting plot and some suspense.    "The Way Things Happen" is a very interesting, funny and perceptive story about the makings of a one night stand.

"My Perfect Uncle"  (11 pages)  "'So what is it like having a gay uncle?"..."Better than no uncle at all".

The last story in the collection, "My Perfect Uncle" is linked up with the first story, "A Day Like That".  "A Day Like That Ended" with the narrator of the story seeing his Uncle Roy getting ready to preform with his band.  He has not seen him in thirty years.   Uncle Roy, utters a four letter word from the stage win he sees his nephew and runs over and asks him if he is on his "holliers".   I have no idea at first what "holliers" means but like any unknown I Googled it and found it means "Holidays" in Irish slang.  His nephew asks him what he is doing there, he tells him he lives real near where he is playing.  The nephew is with his lady, the man is preplexed a bit as he is now a head taller than Uncle Roy, the wife says it sounds silly to call what maybe a semi-reprobate heavy drinking old man, Uncle.   The next day Uncle Ray takes them out to his house.  OK I will let a big cat out of the back here, the legendary for his many ladies friends in the mind of his nephew, turns out to be gay.    The ending takes the whole collection into a wonderful circle.  I love the last few words of the story and you will to.

Border Lines is a wonderful collection of short stories.   Walsh has a real feel for dialogue between couples, short or long term ones.   All of the stories have a strong Irish connection.    The people in the stories are very interesting and we quickly come to care about the people in them.   There is sex, good and bad, a good bit of drinking (hey we are in Ireland!), we go to some tropical places, we spend a strange night in Germany.   It is about people getting by and looking for small pleasures.  To make use of the title expression, some of the stories are about people on the border line or those who have crossed over into different zones.  In the last story, to show what I mean, Uncle Roy has passed beyond the border of acceptable behavior for the Irish male.  It is also about people on different sides of the border, people from different worlds sort of half connecting.  Politically it is in about the borders that have divided Ireland for so long.  

I totally endorse this collection.  There are seven additional stories in the collection, each one very different from the others and each outstanding.

Here is the link to the publisher Doire Press.  Their web page lists a number of interesting sounding works and is a good source of information about the Irish literary scene.  There are also several interesting author interviews.

Mel U


Author Biography

John Walsh was born in Derry in 1950. After sixteen years teaching English in Germany, in 1989 he returned to live in Connemara. His first collection Johnny tell Them was published by Guildhall Press (Derry) in October 2006. In 2007 he received a Publication Award from Galway County Council to publish his second collection Love's Enterprise Zone (Doire Press, Connemara). His poems have been published in Ireland, the UK and Austria and he has read and performed his poems at events in Ireland, the UK, Germany and Sweden. He is organizer and MC of the successful performance poetry event North Beach Poetry Nights in the Crane Bar, Galway. He has also been known to show up with his guitar and deliver one or two of his own songs. Chopping Wood with T.S. Eliot is a collection of sixty new poems to celebrate his reaching the mature age of sixty.

Hr sixteen years, he now lives and writes in Connemara. He has published three collections of poetry, Johnny tell Them (Guildhall Press, 2006),Love’s Enterprise Zone (Doire Press, 2007) andChopping Wood with T.S. Eliot (Salmon Poetry, 2010). He is organiser of North Beach Poetry Nights in Galway, Ireland’s leading performance poetry event, and is co-director of Doire Press, a small literary press in the west of Ireland publishing poetry and literary fiction. Border Lines, John’s debut collection of short stories, is forthcoming in 2012.

 After living in Germany for sixteen years, he now lives and writes in Connemara. He has published three collections of poetry, Johnny tell Them (Guildhall Press, 2006),Love’s Enterprise Zone (Doire Press, 2007) andChopping Wood with T.S. Eliot (Salmon Poetry, 2010). He is organiser of North Beach Poetry Nights in Galway, Ireland’s leading performance poetry event, and is co-director of Doire Press, a small literary press in the west of Ireland publishing poetry and literary fiction. Border Lines, John’s debut collection of short stories, is forthcoming in 2012.


@parridhlantern said...

Have just this moment finished this collection of wonderful tales & was hooked & enchanted by them all. said...

Sounds like a great collection. Must have a read of it. I admire your ability to interpret Irish slang :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Mel: I FINALLY did my post as part of the Irish Quarter - reading a short story by Elizabeth Bowen and one by Edna O'Brien. See And thanks! I enjoyed this and having been eagerly reading your Irish Quarter posts. Was this the right place to comment and participate? Ruby