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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What's Not Said by James Martyn Joyce

What's Not Said by James Martyn Joyce (2012, 200 pages)

The Irish Quarter

"Maybe I learned that year as well how narrow trust could be, how controlled
it was, how the eyes and ears were shared by everyone, the inching
church, the neighbors, the new police, a shared conscience keeping
it aloft, sealed in, a looming fear holding it in place"

What's Not Said by James Martyn Joyce (Galway, Ireland) is a brilliant collection about life on the rough side of contemporary Ireland.   There is a lot of drinking, a good bit of  violence,  guilt and anguish, a great deal of frustration over the limits of life brought to us with a tremendous insight by an artist of rare talent.   These are not stories for the squeamish.   They look some nasty devils in the face, invite them to share a drink or perhaps crack them over the head with an empty bottle of Guinness.  Or maybe both.  The stories are set in Galway.

In posting on short story collections I like to look at particular stories rather than simply generalize about the collection.   If I were pondering buying or reading a short story collection this is what I would prefer to read and I also think it shows more respect for the writer.   There are seventeen stories in What's Not Said.  As I normally do, I will post a bit on about half of the stories and then will try to say what I like about the collection and why I think it is worth reading.  I will also include the official author biography of James Martyn Joyce at the end of the post.


"Dustwoman" (8 pages) is the lead story in the collection.   I really liked this story a lot for it compression of the lives of a family in just a few pages and for the kind of near cathartic relief it seems to provide at the end. Here is how the story starts:  "The day my father had the brush with the dustwoman will always be with me". I am not familiar with Irish slang so I thought a dustwoman was a cleaning lady and I imagined his father got into some sort of fight with one.   For sure I was as wrong as I could be.   The father works in a cemetery.  One of his jobs is to dig the graves.   Sometimes they have to move the coffins around to make room for new burials.    One of the coffins he has to move needs to be opened in order to re-position it.   He sees on the marker that the deceased was a woman who died at only nineteen.   He does not want to open the coffin but his work mates tell him don't worry she wont bite you.   When he opens the casket she is perfectly preserved, with beautiful blond hair.  Once she is exposed to the air she turns to dust.  He is convinced this has put a curse on him.  He has worked in the graveyard a long time.  He lives with his wife, children, and their grandparents.   The head caretaker of the cemetery gets a nice salary and lives in a very comfortable house as part of his compensation.    To compress a bit, the head caretaker dies and the father is told to move his family in the house and begin acting as if he were the head caretaker.   He is advised that in time they will have to advertise the position and he can apply for it.   Two years go by and there is never and advertisement for the job in the paper so everyone feels secure.   Then one day an advertisement appears.   I will not tell the rest of the brilliant story but it ends in rage that seems to let out years of fury.

"Being Mister Smith"

"Being Mister Smith" is a wonderful story about office politics, the love of a good bar fight, a woman with a "nice rack" and an affair that does not quite happen.   The office conversations and undercurrents in this story are really well done.   An attractive woman, Ciara, has just been promoted to a managerial position and has come back from what maybe her first meeting as manager.   Everything seems nice in the office as she asks her male coworker for a welcome back kiss.   She asks Robbie, who sort of mentored her and motivated her to apply for the position as manager, what the office news and gossip has been while she was out.   She wants, of course, to know what people think of her promotion.   She is a very attractive woman and there is sexual tension between her and the very married Robbie.   It is the end of the work week so they make plans to meet at a pub.   About four very interesting things happen in the next few pages.  I will talk about one of them so as not to tell too much.   At the pub a girl causes a fight between two patrons, one a skinhead.  The bar manager gets them outside and the crowd is pumped up and excited over watching a good fight.   One of the fighters ends up being almost killed but what I found telling was how worked up the new office manager, now a figure of authority, was by the fight.   She gives clear signals she wants to have sex with Robbie.  We wonder why the crowd loves the fight so much, why the woman is sexually stimulated by this, what is in the psyche of these people that causes this?   What level of repression is let out by the fight?   This is a very good story and I admit I liked the image of the new manager with the "nice rack" flipping her hair around and looking for sexual release after seeing two men beat each other savagely.  


"Wall" is told in the first person by a fifty year old man whose wife recently tossed him out of their house.   He has been sleeping for the last three weeks on the floor of a friends place, "eating from tins and drinking from tins as well".   He knows he cannot move home until he apologized  to his wife, he might have to beg, and cleans up his act.   His friend Joe, much younger than him, does not mind as he is out in the bars at night.    The man works in an office, I am not quite sure what he does but it is professional work of some kind, where there is a  very competitive cutthroat  environment.   They have clients they deal with and he is judged based on how much revenue his clients bring in.  Like many an older worker, he must deal with much younger bosses and coworkers.   He drinks too much and this seems to be causing his work to go down hill.    His boss has made snide comments about referring some of his tougher clients (they have to collect the invoices also) to a young woman in the office know for being a real comer.   There is a lot of post work socializing in pubs, always with drinking, of course.  In one really painful moment at a sort of meeting in the pub, his boss suggests they will pay for the man to go to counseling for his problems.   That this was said and to make it worse said in public, enrages him.    He stops by his wife to pick up a coat and we meet his oldest son and this is also a bit painful.   There is violence at the very close of the story.   This is a very good story about a man at the end of his tether and it shows what could happen to anyone pushed to far.  

"What's Not Said"

The title story in the collection is about another man living on the edge, trying to make a living but without a lot of interest in working, unless you consider betting to be work.   The author is very diverse in the kinds of people whose minds he can enter and turn out for us and I find this a mark of significant talent and an intelligence that goes beyond the merely bookish.    There is a huge amount compressed in the few pages of this story.    The central character in the story is a professional gambler, betting on horse races, soccer matches and bare knuckled street fights.    The story takes us deeply into the despair of the character which comes out very strongly in his role as sort of manager of a fighter.   He exploits and maybe loves the fighter.   A really well done story.


"Burn" is told in the first person by the kind of teenager or young man that we all hope our sons will not be and daughters will not bring home.   Maybe if we saw him and his mates on the streets of Galway we would cross the road to avoid close contact.    The story starts out with a joyride in a stolen Ford.   We go on a wild ride, kind of a Clockwork Orange version of Mr Toad's Wild Ride, in the stolen car and we see how the narrator and his friends view life.   They are dodging the police.  They have two girls with them who try to distract the police by pulling their tops up.   If you ever wondered how teenage car thieves think you can find out in this story.   It is far from a pretty story but it rings totally of the truth.


"Blow" is a very interestingly linked to "Being Mister Smith".  It centers on the man who got into the terrible fight with the skinhead, who ultimately died.      He worked in the bar but they cannot keep him on anymore, I guess beating a client to death is over the line!   The story opens in a musical show in a pub, music meant to be ugly with a light show meant to scramble what brains drugs have left the patrons of the show.   I will not say to much about this story but it is a superb story about a man in a very dark world.   We see he and his friends and some girls who hang with them spend some time together.   I was really fascinated to see how the author lead the man to a job as the guard at the mansion of rock stars.   They tell him to carry a shotgun and look like he will use it but they advise him not to really shoot anyone.   This is a strong story about throw away kind of people.

"Give Them Nothing"

The story begins with a shooting that follows the collision of a Land Cruiser and a Mercedes.   Tommy has been badly hurt but he is still alive as he hears the gunman scream to his driver to go.   He cannot move and he fears his car will catch on fire.  He thinks back to the time that the woman in his life was admitted to a hospital with a possible brain tumor.   When this happens he promised God he would be a better person, just like we all would.  He still got in brutal fist fights.   He got into dealing drugs and picking up loads at the docks.   It looks like Tommy might be a Traveller, though I am not sure of this.   He also has a number of foreign girls working as prostitutes, bringing in a new group every six weeks so the clients do not get bored.  (This story is linked to "What Is Not Said" and tells us more of the life of the central character of that story.)
The ending is terribly violent but it is perfectly logical and works.  I felt a bit of sympathy for the character in his apparent devotion to the woman in his life but I did not grieve for him.

"1927: Hat"

"1927:Hat" is the last story in the collection.   It is the only story not set in a contemporary mean streets urban environment.   It is  set just after the Civil War.  It is told in the first person and we learn the narrator's father has returned from the war back to his farm and buried his gun.  The father is inspecting some vandalism to his farm gates and he tells he boy he knows who did it but they will not tell his mother about it for now so as not to upset her.   The narrator was seven when this happened, in 1927.   A government man "takes a shine to Fenny's sister" and begins to call on her.  The family  is not at all happy over this.   The seem to especially resent his bowler hat.    They start to call him "The Bowler".   The thought he was using their family gate as a urinal and this set them off quite a bit.   As we can guess, things go very badly for all involved.   This is a magnificent story about near senseless hate and its terrible consequences.

There are nine more stories in What Is Not Said.  Most of the stories are about ten pages long.

This is a great collection of stories.   They are somewhat interrelated but can be read alone and some were published prior to the collection.

These are stories about people who live the life Thomas Hobbes spoke of, "poor, brutish and short".   It is about survival, about the consequences of poverty, the destruction of the self esteem of a culture, rootlessness, violence and hatred.  It is about puppets dancing on a string that never know their controllers.

These are not cheerful happy ending stories.  Much of what happens in them is ugly.   James Martyn Joyce has written a beautiful very compelling stories about people far from my world but it has increased my sympathy and understanding of these people which is, to me, a very high compliment to pay a writer.   I recommend these stories without reservation only observing that they might not be for those who do not like profanity in the works they read and not like stories with lots of violence.

The Galway Independent  has a very interesting article about the author.

Official Author Biography

James Martyn Joyce is from Galway where he is a member of The Talking Stick Workshop. His work has appeared in The Cúirt Journal, West 47, Books Ireland, Crannog, The Sunday Tribune, The Stinging Fly and The Shop. He has had stories broadcast on RTE and BBC and has won the Listowel Writers Week Originals Short Story Competition. He was shortlisted for a Hennessy Award in 2006. He was shortlisted for the Francis McManus award in 2007 and 2008 and The William Trevor International Short Story Competition in 2007 and 2011. His first collection of poetry, Shedding Skin was published by Arlen House in 2010. His collection of short stories, What’s Not Said is published by Arlen House in 2012.

Mel u

3 comments: said...

Thanks for your impressions, Mel. Will definitely look up his work

Paul McVeigh said...

Excellent work as always Mel. Here's a link to him reading from this work if you interested. You do an amazing job of keeping us all informed of the work that is out there. Thank you.

Mel u said...

Paul Mcveigh thanks very much for your comment. There is just an overwhelming amount of great new shortbstories being written now.