Selling Their Childhood
by James Buchanan
Born in 1965, James Buchanan
graduated from Westtown Friends School in 1984, which marked the
beginnings of years spent taking odd jobs throughout the country.
Though his life settled and he is now a journalist and writer, his
experiences and the people he met never quite left him. These stories
are true to those experiences.
with James Buchanan
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"A bit of the angry dust
cloud comes sulking into the bar like a lonely old man looking for a
drink. It settles and lies at my feet and on my shoes. I take a drag on
my cigarette and the smoke sweetly passes through the port wine that
hangs like a mist at the back of my throat."
Reviewed by Sarah Hilary
The title story of this collection, Selling Their Childhood,
is a visceral tale related by a cynical teenager who, at the age of
sixteen, is already past his prime as a young prostitute working the
bus stop steps in Omaha. His best friend is a dreamer but the hero
knows their fate is written in the hard eyes of the fathers who pay for
their services before returning home to family life in the suburbs. We
see these predatory hypocrites very clearly although they don’t feature
in the story as anything more than the reason for the hero and his
friend to be sitting at the bus stop, a few yards from Sammy, a young
dealer who is waiting for the hero to earn enough money to buy his next
hit. The relationship between these boys and the men who use them is
vividly drawn by Buchanan, who keeps everyone distant from one another,
the better to underline the mercenary nature of the relationships. It’s
a masterly balancing act and one that makes the story accessible while
in no sense sanitising the hard truth at its heart.
The suburban family man is brought to life also in The Incorrigible,
a coming-of-age story about a group of friends rebelling against their
school and community. Buchanan writes with bitterly black humour of the
family men who mount their riding lawn mowers more often than they
mount their wives, and who are as trapped in the patterns of their
lives as the boys feel in their adolescence. The hero in The Incorrigible, like that in Selling Their Childhood,
seems wise beyond his years, sometimes straying into an adult
perspective that jars a little in this tale (we can believe in the
cynicism of the young hustler, but this schoolboy seems preternaturally
A cynical note of my own: I could wish the collection hadn’t kicked off with its weakest story. Reason #1,133 to Quit Drinking
begins with the hero waking with a hangover. My heart sank; I feared I
was in for a whole book of stories about despoiled machismo, the
smoking of dead cigarette butts and the hubris of inaccurate male
urination. I wasn't much encouraged by the two typos that followed in
quick succession ("here" for "hear", and "taught" for "taut"), but once
I was beyond this first story I found the collection as a whole very
nearly eclectic in its range of subject matter, and the author more
than adept at writing young boys, old men and new fathers.
The second story, Alexei K,
is an almost painfully private glimpse into the life of an aged Russian
émigré in New York. The third story is more convincing still: a
lascivious old roué recalling past triumphs as he imagines pleasures
yet to come. The descriptive passages – sensual, shocking and amusingly
self-deprecating – are brilliantly handled by Buchanan.
Rainy Day with Jack
is a touchingly intimate portrait of a new father struggling to pacify
his hungry son as they wait for the return of the baby’s mother (who
has, with an exasperating lack of foresight, decided to breastfeed
their son but failed to provide expressed sustenance for the poor child
should she be delayed returning home). Luckily for Jack, his dad is a
lovely chap who resists the negativity that comes with the exhaustion
of trying to get a hungry baby to go to sleep without feeding first.
Beyond the hangover on page one, my only real disappointment with the collection came from The Blue.
This has perhaps the best premise of any story in the collection –
tense, compelling, taut with promise – that of an infertile woman
filling in the time while her husband and her sister try to conceive a
child. The story opens with the heroine closing the bedroom door on her
husband and sister, listening for sounds of intimacy before moving away.
than staying with the appalling tension of this scene, Buchanan chooses
to retreat into back-story of the heroine’s childhood, her mother’s
alcoholism and her own creative discoveries. As readers we have never
left the bedroom door, and perhaps Buchanan intends us to believe his
heroine hasn’t left it either – that she’s attempting to distract
herself during the sexual transaction between her husband and her
sister – but I felt the story slipping away into a more staid realm
than the one we were promised at its outset. Nothing in the flashback
added to the tension of the transaction, rather it diluted its impact.
We discovered the heroine had recently suffered a breakdown, and were
left wondering why she wanted this child so much, and why her husband
and sister would collude to bring a child into the precarious world of
The promise of The Blue
was so immense that perhaps it was bound to fall short in its
execution. Taken overall, however, this collection is a testament to
Buchanan’s intimacy with human frailty and his ability to bring it to
life without blunting any of its sharp, breakable edges.