Route Book at Bedtime

 Ed. Ian Daley

Route Publishing 2010, Paperback
First anthology? No

Authors: Pippa Griffin, Chris Hill, Louis Malloy, Cally Taylor, Katherine Reed, Sam Duda, Jo Cannon, Michael Nath, Sarah Butler, Wayne Price, Dave Pescod, M Y Alam

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"It was dark when the police came. Frank had been lying on the floor of the nest, contemplating the threading of the twigs and grass of the ceiling which didn't let through any light. He had even fallen asleep for some time. He was miserable and getting used to the failure of the great unveiling."

Reviewed by A J Kirby

The Route Book at Bedtime is the twenty-second instalment in Route Publishing's series of contemporary short story collections: a slick presentation containing twelve stories which all take place at one of life's threshold moments, in the liminal world between life and death, innocence and experience, love and loss. It is bedtime reading, and, in a way, the thread which pulls through all of the stories is that they are adult versions of the fairy tales which we've used to explain the world to children as we tuck them up under the duvet and kiss them on the forehead. These adult fairy tales feature bat caves and Snow White, skipping, dancing and coping with baldness. But there's a darker side too; violence and death lurk in the background ready to strike, be it in the form of braining sheep with rocks taken from a dry stone wall or the death of a father.

Where the anthology really succeeds (and where many fall down) is in keeping an even tone throughout. Of course, this is due in no small part to the quality of the writing, but it also has a lot to do with editorial choice. There are no sleeping pills here; finish one of this dreamscape of stories, and the temptation is to move straight on to the next, perhaps pausing to set the alarm clock for just that little bit later in the morning. Having said that, there are some obvious stand-out pieces. By far the most effective story is Wayne Price's The Golfers; the stripped-back, almost dirty-realistic prose displayed here calls to mind Richard Ford's best work. At face value, this story is semi-comic; malcontent boys playing pitch and putt and struggling with golf course etiquette, but scratch below the surface and there is a tangible tension. In the scorching, highly-charged heatwave, peace is a fragile thing:
"The tarmac's cooking along the sides of the gutters and the thick oily smell of it seems to carry up off the road with the heat shimmers and roll along with us as we walk."
As in the best short fiction, in reading The Golfers you get the impression that the world you've entered here for all of twenty pages is as weighty as that of a full-length novel; the strange family dynamics hinting at some terrible past trauma which they still can't escape from. We learn about the static, "tar-pit" of their lives on the estate through a series of strongly-written tableaux. The stultifying boredom, the everyday mundanity of it; Nicky, the narrator, spends a lot of time "absorbed" or staring off into space, drinking his mother's booze. Alfie, his brother, is so disturbed by the unexpected heatwave that he develops a pattern of worrying spasms, which make his arm move "like part of some machine – jerking up and down between his throat and hip". Then at the golf course as his rake "drags over and over the same little patch of sand like a stuck needle on a record."

At first, Nicky is cool towards his brother, embarrassed of him, but eventually, his protective instincts are inspired. And for the first time, Nicky acts to overcome the awful stasis, walking away from the golf course and the two predators who are preying on the family unit. For the first time Nicky feels himself "a companion to" his brother. In this minor escape, there is the suggestion of how Nicky and Alfie can both escape their fates.

Another strong story is Louis Malloy's Tragedy of the Commons, the most original of all the stories, a tale which gives a whole new meaning to the "nesting instinct". Sam Duda's The Parrot also ranks highly, and extra meaning is extrapolated from it, due to the fact that Duda confesses much of the piece comes from personal experience. Which is something that also counts in MY Alam's favour. Smoke and Dust is an extremely emotional portrait of a man whose father has a terminal disease. This tale avoids any accusation of mawkishness thanks to its excellent characterisation and telling detail.

Credit must also go to the three shortest stories in the collection; Jo Cannon's Love on the Rocks is a tender exploration of love and of ageing, hauntingly well-written; Dave Pescod's concise Scalp offers a real, unexpected cerebral sucker-punch; and Chris Hill's So Which is the Way From Here? is an exercise in precise, Carver-esque prose.

Reading The Route Book at Bedtime is like looking through a photograph album full of the snapshots which make up a life, but at the same time, it doesn't shy away from showing us those photographs which didn't quite make the album. We're taken on a journey through teenage crushes, love gone bad, love growing old, trying to rebuild, trying to escape, dying. It's a collection containing stories which are at once stunningly original and familiar. Just don't plan on getting any sleep once you open the cover...

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A J Kirby is the author of three novels; Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009); The Magpie Trap, and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a new volume of short stories, Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010). His work will feature in the forthcoming anthology Ten Journeys (Legend Press).
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