The Method
 by Tom Vowler

Salt Publishing
2010,
Paperback
First collection
Awards: Winner, 2010 Scott Prize, shortlisted, 2011 Edge Hill Short Story Prize







" I curse that the night is so clear, but it’s unlikely my resolve will remain if I return to the soft S of my wife’s body. There’s a route that goes round the cornfields and along the canal… "

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton


Vowler builds layers of insight and understanding; his narratives can be steadily harrowing and difficult to read but always with an unfaltering purposeful edge. We know these stories must be seen through. The title story, The Method, is an outright hook, "I’d read about these actors, the purists who immersed themselves in roles…" Will is the latest character for David, a particularly obsessive fiction writer whose publisher has little faith in him or his authenticity, so David becomes Will, and takes on his darkest vices, sex with obese women and intravenous hard drugs. The Method is strong and inventive, erring toward the nihilistic and bizarre.

It doesn’t get any lighter. In The Games They Play a complacent wife and his scheming spouse act out their uninhibited world of swingers parties. Alex, the husband tries to rig the rules so that he can be the first to choose the "fresh meat." Even though the story is entirely subversive it is written with such an air of normality that it is uncanny.

We are introduced to a starvation double suicide, and then the home truths held back from a fragile, grieving daughter. It seems that Vowler could handle just about any theme with verve and carefully crafted characters always ebbing toward their ends. In They May Not Mean To, But They Do, Frank evolves in a fractured and difficult story which attempts to stitch time and reveal three separate scenarios, a psychiatric unit, his parent’s house and his life with a new lover he met at a dinner party. "As I pulled away and looked into her eyes, it had been like looking into my own soul. It was like being seventeen again, but with the vocabulary to describe it." Vowler takes his dynamic, well-imagined characters to the extremes and really pushes them, but we trust him, he’s in control. It all sounds perfectly viable. The format of the fractured or staggered stories works, it lends a further dimension, opens up the narrative.

Vowler’s prose leaves nothing to chance, he covers every detail with a keen eye and a wealth of vision. In Old Enough, Vowler pushes the narrative to the very edges, when a teacher is raped by a student after she tries to give him extra tuition. I have to wonder if there’s a case for rape scenes in stories, but his prose is still on the side of fragility and sense. Mostly, the book consists of very middle class characters, which he nails, but there are a few scalawags later on in Hare’s Running, a surprising story which almost demands affection for its two main characters, who run bets, drink, smoke and take amphetamines and try to beat the system, all for a worthy cause. This story seemed, in comparison, a bit of dark slapstick in an otherwise unsettling book.

Extracts of Love, a story written in email, lacks the impact of some of the other pieces. The concept is there; the diary entries are too writerly to sound authentic and the ending was expected, if not slightly contrived. Relationships are the key figure in Vowler’s prose, the way we are connected and the way we are alienated. There are some amazingly poetic and lush cascading passages in stories like Breathe, for example:
"When we met, I thought I was allergic to Her perfume, that first corporeal connection as then musk caught my single-malt-coated throat. But those times she wore none- after a shower or when it had been adulterated by the more viscous sweat of lovemaking- my intercostals still crushed me like a jacket for the insane."
Vowler’s first person narratives are very quick, assured and adept. In Team Build, a tongue-in-cheek, hilarious romp, the comic, competitive voice of the narrator is well mastered. "What could be more traumatic than spending half your life reversing up roads because someone forgot they needed to fit two cars on them?" His timing is impeccable, and his prose is neat and sharp.

The final story, The Little Man is gloriously composed and full of secrets, like a lot of the stories, so that you have to pay attention to uncover every one, "but now she stays home with the curtains drawn, listening to the same audio novel over and over." The story involves disfigurement, suicide, caves, and a broken leg. There is so much going on in these stories. Vowler is not afraid to be new, to be dangerous with it and flaunt his talent for imagining the necessary elements to compose coherent, robust and most importantly, satisfying short stories.




Read an excerpt from this collection on SaltPublishing.com


Melissa Lee-Houghton  is author of the book, Patterns of Mourning, published by Chipmunka, and has a full collection of poems scheduled for summer 2011 through Penned in the Margins .

Melissa's other Short Reviews: Philip Shirley "Oh Don't You Cry For me"

Jason Brown "Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work"

Delmore Schwartz "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"   

David Gaffney "Aromabingo"

Elizabeth Baines "Balancing on the Edge of the World"

John Saul "As Rivers Flow"

Stephanie Johnson "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others"

Nicholas Royle (ed) "'68: New Stories from Children of the Revolution"

NIk Perring "Not So Perfect"
                     
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Tom Vowler studied Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth after working in offices and newsrooms. His work is widely published, and The Method was winner of The Scott Prize. He is currently writing his second novel.

Read an interview with Tom Vowler