Sharp Sticks Driven Nails
 ed. by Philip Ceallaigh

The Stinging Fly Press

"You are standing on the corner of some square. Well-lit.  Buzzing. The limits of specificity have been reached. What the fuck did that bartender give you?"

Reviewed by Mithran Somasundrum

In the introduction to this collection, editor Philip Ceallaigh describes the short story form as a paradox: it asks only a modest investment of your time but can have grand designs on your emotions. And the best of the stories in his collection have just that. Although the Stinging Fly Press is based in Dublin, the outlook of the collection is international. We go from Malaysia (The First Time, Shih-Li Kow) and the exhausted lives of a Chinese prostitute and her cook husband to a look back at Romania under Ceausescu (Fake, Radu Pavel Gheo), from Russian soldiers in Chechnya (The Killer And His Little Friend, Zakhar Prilepin) to magical realism in a towering (unending?) Serbian apartment (Our Fellow Creatures, Goran Petrovic). When Ireland does appear, it comes in a number of different locations and styles.

In For Display Purposes Only (Marcus Fleming) a fifty-something middleman in the autotrade is marooned in a bland, corporate hotel, facing up to his sacking while he plans one last throw of the dice and drinks far too much strong Belgian beer. At the end, the different plot points fit together almost too neatly, but overall this story is satisfying and real. Meanwhile, in The Girls And The Dogs (Kevin Barry), an ex-crack dealer flees Cork for what he thinks will be sanctuary in Gort: an old farmhouse occupied by his "friend" Evan the Head, the man's wife and her sister, and the children he's had with the both of them. Before long the narrator is tangled up in Evan's sexual control freakery. Even more than the characters, the great pleasure of this story lies in its first person narration. The rolling rhythms of the narrator's voice are pitch perfect, simple and yet full of poetry and insight.
He said that I was his friend after all and he softened the word in his mouth - friend - in a way that I found troubling. It was the softness that named the price of the word.
Another first person narration that stood out, either because they were so rare in this collection, or because their voices were so strong, was David Mohan's Some Facts About Sonora. Here we are in the US. George Maitland, unknown to his second wife, is in a diner meeting with the woman he and his first wife put up for adoption forty-odd years ago. She is his only child but he feels no sentiment towards her, only unease over what she might now want from him. And as the story progresses and we see more of this tired woman and her scabbed hands and her afternoon drinking, we realise how hopelessly small her expectations were, from him, from life. It's a story not without heart, but told with great emotional control.

Also rare in this collection, and possibly standing out for that reason, were stories that altered conventional reality.  Other than Goran Petrovic, there was only the Israeli writer Alex Epstein, whose five short pieces, Five Stories, often felt more like prose poems than fiction, and Julian Gough's wonderful Tiger, Tiger, in which Tiger Woods complete with his global fame, his sponsorships, his mastery of his craft and his women troubles, is taken from golf and re-imagined as a fiction writer. The success of the story comes from the seamlessness of the transition.
Woods has even taken the most shameful aspect of the novel's long history - it's legacy as a decadent pastime for white people with too much time on their hands - and turned it inside out.
It says something about the richness of this collection that I've got this far without mentioning my three personal favourites.  The Girl in the Window (Brian Kirk), where a middle-aged bank manager sits in his office watching a woman undressing in her apartment across the road. He's spent decades retreating from the world, from his wife, from his job, from his colleagues, and now he mistakes his safe, hermitic voyeurism for love. The story has a strong, pitiless ending.

In The Master Plan (Charlotte Grimshaw) Marcella receives abusive emails from a novelist she's just reviewed for the TLS, while her friend Therese arrives to drop off her son, as a prelude to stealing a valuable painting from her estranged husband. Grimshaw has a descriptive sureness of touch, and is willing to allow her fictional world ambiguity, is willing to let her characters shift and change.  The result is that more than any other story in this collection, The Master Plan felt like stepping into the middle of someone's life.

And finally The Yellow Handbag (Christine Dwyer Hickey).  Finally because it's the last story in the anthology, and finally because, like all good anthologists, Philip Ceallaigh left the best for last. Ashok, an Indian immigrant in Dublin lives and sleeps in his minicab. He does this to save money for two tickets to Mumbai _ a holiday for himself and his daughter. Even though she doesn't want to go. Even though he's not allowed to see her again.  Meanwhile, he ferries an old American woman around the city as she revisits the sights of her youth. For all Ashok's Indian courtliness, for all his misreading of both his passenger and his daughter, and for all the inherent comedy of that situation, he is never reduced to just a comic turn. Instead, the story remains finely balanced between humour and despair, and as a result is both powerful and affecting.

By the end of this collection you realise Philip Ceallaigh's paradox isn't paradoxical at all.  The best of these stories don't ask modest investments of time. Instead they continue to live on in the mind long after they are over.

Mithran Somasundrum  was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives and works in Bangkok. He has published short fiction in Natural Bridge, The Sun, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Minnesota Review, Zahir and GUD among others.
Mithran's other Short Reviews: "Best American Mystery Stories 2007"

James Burr "Ugly Stories for Beautiful People"

Steven Wingate "Wifeshopping"

Theodore Q. Rorschalk (ed) "Touching the Monkey"

Hassan Blassim "The Madman of Freedom Square"

Martin Bax "Memoirs of a Gone World
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Authors Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry, Madeleine D'Arcy, Benjamin Arda Doty, Alex Epstein, Emily Firetog, Marcus Fleming, Andrew Fox, Grace French, Radu Pavel Gheo, Julian Gough, Charlotte Grimshaw, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Brian Kirk, Shih -Li Kow, Gerry McCullough, David Mohan, Dnal Moloney, James Moynihan, Goran Petrović, Zakhar Prilepin and Luke Woods.

Editor: Philip Ceallaigh a native of County Waterford, has lived and worked in Britain, Spain, Russia, the US, Kosovo, and Georgia. He currently lives in Bucharest. He is the author of the story collection Notes from a Turkish Warehouse.