Hearts on fire

A Boy In Summer

by RJ Price

11:9, 9.99

Delilah’s

by John Maley

11:9, 9.99

Love in these sometimes wonderful tales makes a wayward poetry. Love on the rocks, in the air, and at bay. Love in a quandary - twisting and heaving, breathing benignly, then soaring, belting out its aria, love changing everything, hugging its hurt.

Here, in the stories of RJ Price, it shapes and whittles life like a wind, it is indispensable, fickle, teasing. Love for the boy who sees and imagines across those summers of distant childhood, begins as a nest, a place of comfort.

Love for the shakers in Delilah’s is mostly sexual, wrapped in frustrations, stalled by anxieties, fixed by desires. In the vibrant Glasgow tales of John Maley, love is tortuous and hustling, catching you up on its shivery wave, in its restless, humorous, full-on offensive of language riding a spree of outlandish celebration. A love of words is on every rollicking, boisterous page.

But with RJ Price there is a rare and precious stasis, a sense of otherness and the gift of insinuation. Of leaving more out than is on the page. Ghosts invisible; ever present.

Imagine a window, frosted, and ghostly, a gloomy room. Outside is the past; the light passing through is memory’s glow. The writer’s fingernail scratches the surface of the pane, permitting secrets, squints of light, to glimmer through. These fingernail-words grow into images and scenes, which, by the final rhapsodic page of the final story, induces the feeling that the room has come fully to bloom.

It all begins with an invitation: "Go with the boy from the business park./That’s the future. I’m sure you’re right./Take your creams and your credit cards/and meet that boy tonight."

The meeting is easy. Just turn the page and you find a car park outside a pub and there, the closing-time choreography of parties breaking up, of drivers fumbling for their keys, the squeal of goodbyes and the screech of rubber. Price’s gift for lifting life straight out of his head and into print is powerfully palpable in that scene. The boy isn’t visible. Instead he’s the story’s voice.

At once you are gripped by the almost voyeuristic gaze, the outsider’s perspective, which even later, in the book’s most intimate tales, is never quite utterly at bay. It’s that inside/outside sense of duality which initially layers the experience of reading with an impression of depth and complexity flooding the writing. But this misses completely the book’s great strength: attention to perfectly chosen detail.

In the best of the stories - which are exquisite - such as "A Room Full of Botticellis", "The Last Day" and "Answers to an Interview", the detail illuminates character. Age range, too, is beautifully handled, as are relationships, the unspoken bonds between sons and hero fathers, between the older and younger self, the melt of time, the lure of place. There’s a sense that these stories have been gestated over a period of years. The west of Scotland’s small town essence, its urban borderlands of the mind, have rarely been better brought to life or better mapped in shades of loss.

Maley’s Delilah’s is louder and gaudier. It features Delilah’s bar in downtown Glasgow, a hangout for gays, shrewdly managed by Joanie, (real name John). In its almost 40 snazzy snapshots of Joanie’s life, and that of the barflies, it becomes a Glaswegian panorama on the rowdier side of raunch. Amid the collisions and caresses in bedrooms and cubicles, there are splashes of the tearful kind, as lovers run out of relationships. Often dressed up in sequins and boas (don’t miss "Play Dusty for Me", a romp of great rhythmic writing and vibed-up verve), the stories are almost never a drag in this muscled collection tattooed with flourishes and pashes.

But some of the tales do have patches of flatness, which wouldn’t register were they not so surrounded by life. At moments there’s an odd self-consciousness, maudlin philosophy and soft-centred signings-off as when, at the end of "Jeannie and Joanie", one of the quietest and most moving tales in the book, the narrator whimpers his dollop of platitude: "He (Joanie) thought of the stories we tell ourselves and each other, to break our hearts and mend them." Too much, too much, yet not enough.

But this doesn’t detract from a marvellous, entertaining read. Take "Going Back", a story of homecoming, or "Bridging the Atlantic", full of emptiness, but full, and you meet real storytelling talent and a writer of compassion, wit and staying power. Not to be missed.

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