Sunday, October 18, 2009

Coming Home In The Dark

This is not a review of Owen Marshall’s short story collection, Coming Home In The Dark. Last week, I did not review The Lynx Hunter as part of Owen Marshall Month here at This Fluid Thrill.

Coming Home In The Dark

Published 1995 (Marshall's sixth full short story collection)

27 Stories, 215 Pages (an average length of 8 pages per story)

The vibe

Coming Home In The Dark packs plenty into its 215 pages. As in The Lynx Hunter, the first four or so stories look and feel like what one may call ‘realism’, but we soon get pieces like ‘The Lenny Fudge Bibliography’ (which, as the name suggests, is a list of books featuring, or perhaps by, Lenny Fudge) and ‘Recollections of MKD’ which is the transcript of an interview between an academic and a school friend of a recently deceased writer.

There’s moments of fun and cajolery, but there’s a dark heart to this collection. In the third story, ‘Cometh The Hour’, James Cumuth confronts an escaped convict, “the nation’s galvanised degeneracy,” and comes off second best. In ‘Flute and Chance’, Rabber likes to talk in non sequiturs, but one day meets his match in a razor-wielding misfit for whom randomness is not confined to the verbal. The title story, which closes the collection, features another criminal intrusion into ordered life, this time giving the criminal, Mandrake, a chance to argue his case for nihilism and bloodshed. At the conclusion of this story, the sedate Coming Home In The Dark title seems much darker. A story like ‘Goodbye, Stanley Tan,’ in which the narrator returns to Singapore with his wife and recalls his time there several years ago, working in an illegal pig abattoir, suddenly seems to be saying more than it did on a first reading.

My five favourite stories in the collection

Working Up North

The opening story in the collection. Exhibits many common features in an Owen Marshall story: first person male narrator (university student) doing a character sketch of a passing acquaintance; temporary job (fish splitter in Nelson for summer holidays); unlikely character names (Mr Trubb, which I believe is the scum they skim off the top of beer during the fermentation process). The strength of the story is its conciseness, in both plot and language. The sudden death of Mr Trubb is the first of many explorations into the seemingly arbitrary nature of misfortune. [Selected by both Marshall and Vincent O’Sullivan in their anthologies.]

A Part of Life

One of the longer stories in the collection. Middle-aged Polly spends the summer cleaning a motel in Tekapo with her daughter. An older American visiting NZ with his sisters, complains that he cannot buy “womanly company”, and after a time Polly and he agree on a transaction. Interesting stuff and deftly handled. Dark, too, when you think about it. [Selected by Marshall but not O’Sullivan.]

Growing Pains

“When I was fourteen I began suffering cruelly from lovesickness,” the story begins, and it goes on to detail all the girls and women the narrator has fallen for. Marshall often uses such frames for character sketches, and I’m a sucker for these stories: they seem to align just as well with the way we recall life as a story centred around a character (‘Cass Robbins’) or an event (‘Day One’) rather than a theme. This story in particular is full of quotable lines and exacting detail: “Mrs Lassiter liked me: she said I had a cheeky face. With a thrilling freedom of language, she said bugger and shit… She smelt of silver paper and fabrics dried in the sun.” [Selected by O’Sullivan but not Marshall.]

This Man's Army

There’s so much detail in this story of a man’s recollection of National Service that you can’t help but wonder how autobiographical it is. Who cares when you get this sort of thing: “The best letters I got were from Debra Eastcliff… almost everything around me as I read her letters, or replied, or thought about her, was incomprehensible to someone not living it. That particular sound of the chain through the trigger guards, the two guys who had started bumming in the showers, the MP’s Land Rover at three or four in the morning so that the barrack room was briefly lit with flashes through the windows.” [Selected by Marshall but not O’Sullivan.]

Day One

Owen Marshall is a master of the first paragraph. Look at how much you learn, or can infer, from this one:
“In the mid-60s I finished my thesis on extruded igneous dykes of Banks Peninsula and sat back to receive the plaudits and post-graduate study offer of the academic world. The academic world remained strangely mute and I accepted a job as assistant house-master at a traditional boys’ college. All the physical possessions that I owned into the world were crammed into my series E Morris and I drove up the day before the start of term one.”
[Selected by Marshall but not O’Sullivan.]

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