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Phoenix: Irish Short Stories 1997

Edited by David Marcus

This is the second annual anthology of short stories by Irish writers, edited by that tireless promoter of Irish writing, David Marcus, and published by Phoenix House. It contains sixteen stories, some by established or beginning to be established names, some by newcomers for whom this is the first time in print.

Among the ones which impressed me most were: ‘A Door in Holborn’ by Padraig Rooney, who is obviously a consummate lover of language and a master of atmosphere and the telling detail; ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by Colum McCann, with its echoes of John McGahern’s ‘Korea’, and its delicate, almost surrealist surprises; and ‘Writing Cookbooks’ by Maxim Crowley, who is, on the evidence of this contribution, the possessor of a macabre imagination and subversive sensibility which, while uniquely his own, read like a riveting cross between the alienation of any of Beckett’s many anti-heroes with the Baroque obsessiveness of Peter Greenaway, especially as exemplified in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover.

Since its publication early last year, I have been extolling right, left and centre to anyone who cares to listen, the many virtues and merits of Mike McCormack’s debut collection Getting It In The Head. He is represented here by ‘The Angel Of Ruin’ which, while not the best story from his book, and probably chosen with the American market in mind, does give a sampler of the enormous talent displayed in Getting It In The Head, which in its turn gave indications that McCormack is a worthy aspirant to the mantle of Poe, Borges, Calvino, Ballard and Pynchon, and might one day be worthy to join that pantheon and live on the same plane inhabited by these God-like geniuses.

‘Eel’ by John Dunne, of this parish, is a pithy tale of domesticity and vasectomy. (There is a difference between men and women, and it is a vas deferens.) ‘Fortune-Teller’ by Shelia Barrett partakes of the succintness and deadpan tone of Alice Munro.

But the real stone classic here is the last, long, story ‘Heaven Lies About Us’ by Eugene McCabe. Sure, it’s set in the past, and it takes place against a backdrop of an Irish identity constructed around Catholicism and Nationalism which is all but dead and gone, but in its treatment of the genuine horror of child abuse and incest it reaches emotional depths only plummeted in fiction of the highest order. It is not its choice of theme which makes this story great (everyone is writing about child abuse these days), but the sensitivity with which it is handled and the powerful punch it packs. It should also be remembered that the Kerry Babies, Ann Lovett and the X case are events which cannot yet be consigned to ancient history, and that they have become deeply ingrained in the national psyche. I have not read any of McCabe’s other work, but on the evidence of this story alone he is a great writer, and I will be rectifying my omission as soon as possible.

There are traces in this book of what Beckett termed ‘antiquarianism’ (and the new antiquarianism is designed to please the expatriate Irish-American rather than the indigenous Catholic Nationalist audience), an elevation of the grand realist tradition at the expense of the more experimental tradition. In other words, one is more likely to discover a fledgling Corkery, O’Flaherty, O’Faolain or O’Connor here than a budding Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien or Banville. Also, the book is ill-served by its cover, an embarrassing collage of a pint of Guinness, a statue of the Virgin Mary, a pair of hurley sticks and a harp on a tricolour. Are we, worryingly, meant to take these symbols seriously, or are they, one hopes, intentionally kitsch? (The best cover of an anthology of Irish writing undoubtedly has to be that of the Picador book edited by Dermot Bolger, with its photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.) These criticisms aside, the Phoenix: Irish Short Stories series is one of the very best ventures of its kind, and this year’s volume will serve to bring some published writers to the attention of a wider readership, and some unpublished ones to the attention of publishers.

First published in The World of Hibernia


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