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Ballistics

Alex Keegan

 
"I served 'em. They went away. I couldn't quite see them, but I heard him once or twice, laughing at something dirty, then her, the hee-hawing like a ship's boiler that needed fixing. When he came back to the bar, I asked, 'Is your mother not well?' He smiled. 'Did you know,' he said, 'that Lemmings are afraid of heights?' I'd been practising. 'Yes, I said. 'And did you know that in this country alone, an average of seventy-two people every day die playing bingo."

Reviewed by Majella Cullinane

What is particularly arresting about Alex Keegan's prize-winning collection of seventeen stories is the singularity of his writing style which is direct and immediate. The title story Ballistics employs the rarely used 2nd person point of view giving the story a sense of immediacy and poignancy which draws in the reader and demonstrates in forthright language how an impulsive, violent act carried about by a parent has had far reaching consequences for the "you" of the story and her family.

Another noticeable trait of Keegan's is the fun he employs with titles, many of which are as direct, humourous and punchy as his stories. Miguel who cuts down trees is told in the first person, by the rather eccentric Miguel. There is a fairytale quality and simplicity about the story; Keegan, uses "when I was" as a regular device throughout allowing Miguel to tell his story, and yet the underlying tone of this man's life is one of distance and remove from reality because of mental illness.

One of my favourites in the collection was The Smell of Almond Polish which is about Bridie Collins trying to start a new life in 1950s London. Bridie, who's devoted most of her life to her family, decides to escape to London and try to make her way alone, only to find that invariably the past catches up with her. Again the matter-of-factness of Keegan's style might make events in her life seem inevitable, only for a little turn which illustrates that despite the fact that Bridie may have to return to her old life, at least she can still fulfil a personal desire.

Inherent in many of Keegan's stories is the unresolved, unfulfilled longings of many of his characters. Through this longing, the writer breathes a freshness and vitality into commonplace lives, often using subtle or dark humour, which serves as a a kind of emollient to the harsh realities of life. Green Glass tells the story of a character in transition, one who is leaving something, and like Bridie Collins is trying to start something new, and yet he finds himself getting stuck in another place, which is really all that different from where he came from. The Fucking Point Two, is the story of four former soldiers running the London Marathon and employs flashbacks to the war in Rwanda to tell the story of how they lost their limbs in the conflict. The technique of combining the past events of war and the present experience of the marathon gives an immediacy and rhythmical effect which reflects the tension and intensity of the subject matter.

Keegan is not only experimental with form, using flashbacks, letter forms, and postcards but also tells stories from a variety of points of view, first, second and third person. However, it is the dramatic monologues, the first person narrative stories that work the best in my opinion. The voices are often distinctive, witty and edgy, particularly in his stories set in Wales. The Last Lover Letter of Berwyn Philip Price is one such story. The character Price has written a last letter to his wife thanking her for her patience and stalwartness regarding his rugby obsession. It is a very warm and amusing story:

The house is so quiet, I can hear it breathing and then, faintly, if I listen hard, you humming as you prepare our half-time snap. You always said you didn't hum, but you did Beth.

The Bastard William Williams is another favourite. An ex-coal miner has a visit from a long-lost relative, which serves as a kind of unexpected connection for him in the bereft Welsh valley where he lives, changed dramatically since the end of the coal-mining era. While there is regret, there is a realistic acceptance of it, and a simmering humour which is never far from a Keegan story:

He do smile at me, condescending like an English member of Parliament or some social worker have come to see I am washed.

Meredith Toop Evans and His Butty, Ernest Jones tells the story of Jones who is not only a survivor of a mining accident, but also of the Great War. It is extremely engaging and describes vividly the enclosed depths and darkness of the mines, and the camaraderie of the men, one of whom turns out to be an unlikely hero. Tomatoes, Flamingos, Lemmings is a quirky tale about how a barmaid and her customer's love of facts result in a burgeoning romance. Told from the point of view of the barmaid it is a highly conspiratorial and engaging story, and Keegan makes us feel as if we really know this woman. Postcards from Balloon Land which uses the form of postcards began with me thinking that it was a story about the lies parents tell their children, and yet it is actually a story about one man's original attempt to prepare his family for his death. It is told in simple, direct language, and like most of Keegan's stories, which are resonant and poignant, because of his no nonsense style, there is nothing trite or sentimental about it.

Not all Keegan's second person narratives are quite as successful. The Quarry, for some reason, perhaps because the relationship between the brother and sister relates to a childhood memory made me feel, as a reader like an outsider, as if I were intruding somehow. There is much to enjoy in Keegan's Ballistics; a highly engaging read by a writer with a distinctive, and bold writing style.

Read the title story from this collection in the Mississipi Review

Majella Cullinane is from Ireland and currently lives in New Zealand. She has an MLitt. in Creative Writing. Awards include a Sean Dunne Poetry prize, a Hennessy/Sunday Tribune Award for Emerging Poetry and an Irish Arts Council award. In 2008, she was short-listed for the Fish Short Story Prize. She's worked as a Writer- in-Residence in Scotland and Ireland, and has just had her first book of poetry accepted for publication.
Majella's other Short Reviews: Jim Tomlinson "Nothing Like An Ocean" 

Tim Jones "Transported"

Gerard Donovan "Young Irelanders"

Publisher: Salt Publishing

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: Yes

Awards: Longlisted, 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Book website: Alex Keegan's Ballistics

Author bio: Alex Keegan began writing seriously in 1992, publishing five mystery novels before switching to serious short fiction. He has been published widely in print and on the web and been awarded more than a dozen first prizes for his fiction as well as three Bridport Prizes. Born in Wales with an Irish mother, he now lives and writes in Newbury, England where he lives with his second wife and two teenage children. He runs a tough internet writing school, Boot Camp Keegan.

Read an interview with Alex Keegan


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Elizabeth Baines "Balancing on the Edge of the World"

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