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

Monday, November 12, 2012

As Close As You'll Ever Be by Seamus Scanlon

As Close As You'll Ever Be by Seamus Scanlon (2012, 160 pages, a collection of short stories)

The Irish Quarter

by Seamus Scanlon

It takes a writer of magnificent talent to write beautifully about terrible ugliness and Seamus Scanlon has done exactly that in a brilliant highly entertaining fashion in his debut collection of interrelated short stories As Close As You'll Ever Be.   The twenty three stories in the collection center on the life, development and mind set of a professional killer who takes his motivation from the political turmoil in Ireland.  The stories range back and forth in time and are not all set in Ireland but it is to there we always come back.

There are lots of ways to try to cope with living in a murderous climate where you can be killed for your religion, your accent, who your friends are or even your choice of clothes.  You can just as likely be killed for being either in the wrong place or in the way.    You can become a killer yourself or celebrate those who are.   You can retreat or turn to the church.  You can, as millions have done in Ireland, leave the country.   Or you can revel in the chaos, see each killing as a sacrifice to some very dark gods to try to assure your own survival.  Every time someone is killed you feel joy that it is not you.    You can bathe in the blood that shoots from a person who has just take a shotgun blast to the face, head for a pub and tell your mates how funny it was and try to get a woman excited with your bravado.   It is this darkness that we see treated in Scanlon's wonderful stories.   There is no apology, no hand wringing in these stories.  Sometimes it is better to celebrate with the devil than hide from him and there is something liberating in the idea that you can kill those you do not like and claim it is righteous politics.   The whip is in the grave.

Most people who post on collections of short stories write one or two sentences on a few of the stories and then finish up with some generic superlatives which could apply to most anything.   My approach, which I understand takes more time and requires the reviewer actually read the stories, is to post in some detail on a good number of the stories and then conclude with some remarks on why I liked it, why I think it is worth reading  and any reservations I have.    I will say I loved this collection and I felt I was walking the bad streets of Ireland.

"The Long Wet Grass"  

"The rain falls slow and steady, then gusting, reminding me of Galway when I was a child where Atlantic winds flung broken fronds of seaweed onto Prom during high tide.  Before the death harmony of Belfast seduced me."

"The Long Wet Grass", the lead story in the collection, won the 2011 Fish-One Page Prize.   It certainly gets the collection off to a bang, literally and metaphorically.  It is a very short story, most would call it flash fiction.   The story begins in a car ride, a professional killer is taking someone on the last ride.   Somehow Scanlon makes the killing seem like a sacrifice in an ancient cult, an inevitable event beyond good and evil.  The story was very powerful and certainly alerted me that I was not in for a tour bus through the tourist spots of Belfast ride.


"Our housing estate was as tough as the cold, rough concrete walls of the houses.  The Rattlesnakes patrolled the local streets and sometimes filled with them with blood".

In "Rob", we see our killer at age eleven.  He lives with his mother and his sixteen year old brother, who he greatly looks up to.   Rob works in morgue and wants to go to medical school.  He steals and reads all sorts of advanced text books from the university library.   There are vicious gangs patrolling the neighborhood and to let them know you planned to go to medical school was a major mistake.   We get a good feel for the housing estate and the gangs that dominate it.  The story is told in the first person and the narrator knows he is advanced for 11.  He talks about how street fighting is primeval and he admires the single mindless devotion to a cause of the street gangs.   We hope Rob can get out of the housing project but the seeds of terrible violence are in him.   You do not take an insult in this world and someone has called Rob a "homo:".  The narrator does not want him to go to see the teenager who insulted him, knowing something terrible will probably happen.   Even though we might have expected some violence we are still shocked by the sheer savagery of Rob's actions, and they are not even directed at the person who insulted him.   Scanlon does a brilliant job with the police visit to the house.   This is a great story and helped me understand the forces at work in this society.

"A Shot Gun Kill"

"When I woke up the barrel was pressed against my temple."

"A Shot Gun Kills" shows us that the job of teenage killer is not without its hazards.   People tend not to like it when you kill their family members or friends and often take it personal enough to try to return the favor to you.   This perfect story begins with the narrator's door being kicked in.   Somebody kicks him in the head with steel tipped boots, standard wear in the housing estates for fashionable young lads, and when he wakes up there is a gun pressed against his head by a man whose father he killed.   He tries to talk the man out of shooting him by telling him his father had it coming and the man says he does not care it was his father.  Our hero (?) gets himself out of trouble and we enjoy another killing.   

"Drive This"

"My mother started taking driving lessons after my father died.  I didn't mean to kill him so suddenly.   Accidents do happen, you know.  But he had it coming"

How can you not like a story where the narrator confesses killing his father in the opening lines.   He must have read The Playboy of the Western World!    This story, set in Galway, tells us  a good bit about the narrator's mother, a district nurse.   She does work that emergency room doctors and home health workers might do in richer places.   The street gangs that run the neighborhood leave her alone as they know they or their families might need her one day.   One of the big menaces are the big attack dogs the skin heads have.  We read a nice account of a father son attack on one of them.  Nice bonding experience.   The driving lessons are hard on his mother, she is taking them because she fears the dogs on her bike.   The instructor lives in a fancy part of Galway, so of course our narrator already hates him and his mother claims he is a rude instructor.   The ending is another ultra-violent one, really shocking and senseless and perfectly told.  For sure I, and the driving teacher, did not see it coming!

"Night at The Banshee"

"Night at the Banshee" takes us on  trip with our narrator and his cousin Susan, to heavily Irish South Boston.   One of his uncles owns a popular  restaurant with mostly Irish-American customers and staff.  He is sixteen now.   The narrator knows he has no social skills so he basically just gives sullen more or less typical teenage responses to all questions.    He already has a reputation as a gunman.   The story turns totally exciting when three hit men show up looking for his uncle.   I found this very thrilling and totally perfect.  Our man comes across as a fearless hero and for sure a very smart gunman.


"I was the youngest Aryan Youth in Galway, or Ireland, or the world probably when I joined the National Socialist Party of Great Britain and Ireland".

I found this story a fascinating look at how the politics of World War II and Ireland's low key sort of support  of Germany infected the mind of the young narrator.    The story takes places after the war as Hess is in prison and Hitler is dead.   I admit I did not know the president of Ireland at the time sent condolences to the German embassy upon the news of the death of Hitler.   I admit I am a bit confused as to when this story occurs, it is a retelling of the memories of the boy so we do not know exactly how old he is when the story is told.   We can only assume his love for the seemingly clear ideologies of Nazis and its love for death fascinated him and helped turn him into the killer he becomes.   I confess I was shocked to learn there was a large Swastika in Dublin during WWII.    This is a really fascinating story.

"The Perfect Son"

"A deep sheen of pain sliced into me over the life my mother had spent since I left".

The central figure in our stories is growing older now and his Mother has called him back to see her.   Declan Kiberd has said  that one of the very central themes of Irish literature is the weak or missing father and we certainly see that played out with deadly results in the stories in this collection.   As he comes in the door he asks his mother "Where is he?"    He has shaved his head since he last saw his mother.   They have tea, which is put forth as the Irish response to all emotional vacuums.    He has come to see his father.   He reflects on the long periods as a child when his father abused him.   He thinks back to his time fighting in the Mekong delta, Algiers and Dacca Valley.  I will leave the encounter with his father untold but it is flawless and completely logical.

"All in the Mind"

"Soldiers true once we were.   Soldiers true once we were.   Heroes once we were for the Kings and Queens of England and Dublin Castle.   Now heroin found us, bound us, gagged us, laid us down on the hard Dublin concrete".

I love how this story evokes the fact that the members of the street gangs of Dublin are descendents of great warriors, with blood lines of "Saxons, Normans, Blacks and Tans, the Dublin Fusilers, by the topography of carnage that was the Western Front, the Crimea, Kyber Pass, the Congo, Lebanon".   We are in New York,  in an area where most of the gang members are from the Dominican Republic.  The narrator tells us that the Dominicans act like the Irish did 100 years ago when they were at the bottom of the immigrant food chain.   We learn something interesting about the narrator, that he is hypo-allergenic.   We visit Irish bars.   The Dominicans he is after robbed an Irish bar so they have to die.   The violence is almost a thing of beauty.   Another great story.    This story reminded me of another great short story by the 2010 winner of the Caine Prize for African Stories "Stick Fighting Days" by Olufemi Terry in which he lets us see that boys in gangs in a Garbage dump in Sierra Leone are descendants from great tribes of warriors.    Terry's and Scanlon's stories both help illuminate each other, in my mind, and this is a very high mutual complement.

"My Beautiful, Brash, Beastly Belfast"

"Her Brain Tissue and blood streak down the wall of their house.  A corrupt Belfast Passover".

This is a story of the "collateral damage" in turf wars between Belfast gangs.   Every street is somebodies holy land and somebodies abode of the devil.   Our central character's sister gets her brain blown out in a shooting aimed at him.   We see in the funeral processes that this is a common occurrence.   We see how he loves his gun and maybe we understand a bit why.   This is a story of a culture of total violence and hatred for anyone not just like yourself.   At the very least, it makes me scratch Belfast from my lists of places to visit!    As are all the other stories, it is a masterpiece of the story teller's art.

"On Her Birthday"

"I moved back home from Belfast to Galway to take care of my mother when it was clear that her Alzheimer's disease was worsening".

The central character has one redeeming characteristic, he loves his mother.    He is a teacher for kids in one of the toughest parts of the city.   His brother, Rob, had realized his dream of becoming a psychiatrist and works with the criminally insane.   His mother has forgotten much of her life, including his name.   There is something very interesting she recalls but I will leave it untold.  He seems to have gotten past much of the terrible terrors and violence of his younger days.    His life is dedicated to taking care of his mother.   This story, the final one in the collection, somehow took us full circle.

As Close As You'll Ever Be by Seamus Scanlon is a brilliant collection of stories that helps illuminate some very dark aspects of the contemporary Irish psyche.   The prose is beautiful, the depictions of the events, often terribly violent, are simply superb.   There are 14 other stories in the collection.   Each one can be read as a stand alone story but take together they help us understand a man whose humanity we want to reject but we really cannot.

I think As Close As You'll Ever Be by Seamus Scanlon could well become a classic one day.   I endorse it to anyone with the caveat that it is not for those who dislike violence or profane language.   You will for sure keep reading these stories to see what is going to happen next.    I really enjoyed reading the stories in this collection.

I am not the only one who loved this collection.  Here are some extracts of comments taken from the publisher's web page

Some high praise for Scanlon's collection:
"The best book I've read in years.  Scanlon's disquieting genius takes you 'as close as you'll ever be' to understanding the terrible beauty of the Irish experience." Michael Collins (The Keepers of Truth)
"Scanlon's mesmerizing prose reveals the dark humor and bleakness of the Irish psyche." Lyn Di Iorio, (Outside the Bones)
"A masterpiece. Wildly disturbing and penetratingly truthful. I was mesmerized, horrified, amazed."  Peter A. Quinn (Poor Banished Children of Eve)
"A terrific collection of dark, haunting stories." SJ Rozan (The Shanghai Moon)
"Like the best writers of noir fiction, Scanlon has a gift for the poetry of violence." Harold Schechter (True Crime: An American Anthology)
"An intense, dangerous, ride." David Bright (Gemini Magazine)
"Brutishly beautiful stories that show the cost to the soul that violence exacts." Eckhard Gerdes (Journal of Experimental Fiction)
"Part Quentin Tarantino, part Joyce Carol Oates—an engaging and distinctive new voice." Peter McDermott (The Irish Echo)
"Below the surface of the humor and mayhem is the truth of a brave, banal and tragic new Ireland." Larry Kirwan (Black 47)
"There is a dark, poetic urge carrying the stories." Clem Cairns (Fish Publishing)
"A powerful tonic that'll cure the blight of romanticism in Irish history. The beauty of the writing is in stark contrast to the violence depicted."Gerard Brennan (Crime Scene NI)
"Scanlon’s collection is breathtakingly beautiful and tragic." Sandra Seamans, (The Short Mystery Fiction Society)
"As Close As You'll Ever Be is a fine  collection, full of wit, emotion and linguistic dexterity, and shot  through with a kind of violent poetry. A must-read for fans of Cormac  McCarthy and Ken Bruen." Allan Guthrie (Slammer)

Author Bio

Seamus Scanlon is a an award winning librarian at City College's Center for Worker Education. Recent achievements include a residency at the MacDowell Artists Colony,  an emerging writer's fellowship from the Center for Fiction and artist in residence at the cell theater New York. He was runner up for the 2012 Roanoke Review Fiction Prize, the winner of the 2011 Fish Publishing One Page Story competition and winner of the 2010 Over The Edge Writer of the Year award.

Cairn Press has additional information on collection here

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