You Are Not The One by Vestal McIntyre
I Could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train by Peter Hobbs

28/01/06, The Times

It is not often that one discovers a writer whose prose has that certain je ne sais quoi that pulls you along effortlessly, imperceptibly, till you suddenly realise that you have finished the book. It’s writing that is clean, lucid, transparent, like a clear stretch of water; in other words, it’s the most difficult of all prose styles to pull off. Vestal McIntyre is such a rare writer and if proof were needed that the last safe haven of that endangered species, the short story, is the USA, one need look no further than his debut collection, You Are Not The One. This collection of eight stories, whose depths and wisdom are enclosed in a style of measured grace and pellucid balance, brings to mind the work of Lorrie Moore and Tobias Wolff.  

The predominant note is elegiac, streaked through with both melancholy and joy. McIntyre moves with subtle ease from the empathetic and nuanced exploration of the snag of hidden dissatisfactions in an outwardly unruffled life in ‘Binge’ to the beautifully sharp and perfectly balanced bitchiness of ‘ONJ.com’. In ‘Dunford’, a man somehow sidelined by his own life and reduced to the role of marginal extra, indulges his sexual fantasy in a car wash, while his wife and son are away, with disastrous consequences. ‘Disability’, one of the finest stories in the collection, traverses a slightly dysthymiac sensibility to arrive at an unexpected possibility of happiness at the end. In ‘Foray’, a reluctant teenager is roped into reading out to his disabled cousin during the family summer holidays and through the pages of Moby Dick he acquires both empathy and the knowledge of the end of innocence. ‘Octo’, the most disturbing piece here, opens up an infinitely resonant world of troubled family and sibling relations, through a boy’s attachment to his pet octopus. McIntyre has not only listened to the secret currents of the human heart but has also found felicitously understated ways of capturing them.

Readers should be left to figure out what it says about literary prizes and juries that last year’s most luminous and affecting novel, The Short Day Dying, was passed over by the Booker mafia, but Peter Hobbs is back this year with a collection of short stories, I Could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train. It’s an unremittingly bleak book: Hobbs writes about alienated lives, fractured and broken by sorrow, loss, anxiety, depression, inhumanity. The Weltanschauung that emerges is neither comforting nor redemptive and Hobbs expresses it with such eloquence and conviction that the book fairly bores a hole in your head. Like David Mitchell, Hobbs is a magician of styles and ideas. He ranges effortlessly from the sci-fi territory of a minutely detailed waterworld dystopia in ‘Deep Blue Sea’ to the jagged and ambushing inner emotional landscapes of ‘New Orleans Blues’ and ‘Hope/Jack’. In ‘Afterlife’, the story of a woman trying to restart her life after a divorce, he modulates, almost imperceptibly, from its initial acid voice to a muted, sad ending. ‘Molloy Dies’, despite its indebtedness to Beckett, as the joke of the title implies, is a deeply intelligent Borgesian exercise that tries to articulate the great paradox of consciousness-in-death.

The best of these stories dazzle with their fluency and intelligence, their impressive panoply of styles, and almost all are extraordinarily written, encapsulating some anguish or agony, of the body and the mind, the sheer, relentless horror of living, but a lot of them haven’t crossed that final boundary into the territory of fiction. The interspersed ‘Dream’ stories are gimmicky and unassimilated while stories such as ‘It’s All True’, ‘Movie in Ten Scenes’, ‘Paula/Barry/Terry’ read like recycled works that should have stayed in the bottom drawer. In the absence of anything here that gathers up the various pieces in a coalescing design, the overall feeling is of a book of five-finger exercises: virtuoso, thrilling displays sometimes but, alas, ultimately no cohering sonata.

Due to an unfortunate scheduling error, we ran our review of Helen Simpson’s new book of short stories, Constitutional, in October last year, three months before it was published, for which, our sincere apologies. This is just another reminder to readers to seek out this gem that flashes its subtle fire into the hidden corners of everyday lives and quotidian domesticity. Simpson’s illuminations are neither neither epiphanic nor floodlight-bright; instead, their light is that of lived truths. In this decidedly autumnal collection, she writes of illness, ageing, loss, death in a way that will answer with a corresponding click in every reader’s heart. Such is her infinite mastery of the form she can leave out practically everything and yet make her stories articulate truths that throw the whole jigsaw puzzle of life up into the air and make them fall into new patterns of meaning and revelation.