Selling Their Childhood
 by James Buchanan

Publish America
2007, Paperback
First collection

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.

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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 adult).

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.

Rather 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 post-traumatic stress.

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.

Read the title story from this collection in the Plum Ruby Review

Sarah Hilary is an award-winning writer whose fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. Sarah won the Fish Historical Crime Prize in 2008. Most recently, her work was Highly Commended by Aesthetica and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A column about her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in Foto8 Magazine and later in the Bristol Review of Books.

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Katherine Mansfield "The Collected Stories"   

Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Sophie Hannah "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets"

Benjamin Percy "Refresh, Refresh"

Chavisa Woods "Love Does Not Make me Gentle or Kind"

Jennifer Pelland "Unwelcome Bodies"

Laura Solomon "Alternative Medicine"

Patricia Highsmith "Nothing that Meets the Eye"
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