NO LIFE is too small, no thought without meaning. Whereas James Joyce gave voice to the commonplace, and signalled its celebration, Allan Wilson out-Joyces Joyce with his celebration of the mundane.
His 19 short tales, each brief enough to be read with a cup of tea, are modern stories for the Twitter generation. Jabs of prose, life cast as footnotes, fading footprints, each going nowhere, more in longing than expectation.
Wilson channels his characters’ thoughts and directs their voices without any fussiness. Shorn of needless stylistic flourishes, the stories possess the immediacy of voices breathed in the ear, their first-person telling appearing to circumvent the presence of the author.
But even when Wilson pulls right back, with a third-person telling, he has the knack, the easy intimacy and simple matter-of-factness that made me think of Bernard MacLaverty’s publishing debut 34 years ago with Secrets & Other Stories.
Keeping secrets is part of the trick of telling stories, and Wilson’s characters hug themselves close to their own inner lives while transacting the business of getting by, with little hope of getting on, of making the big time. Transcendence resides in brief flashes of love, or in their frequent resorts to booze to induce a kind of confessional closeness.
The opening story, “A Celebration”, has Jack and Tony (the narrator) as cosy confidantes sharing man talk, while “the girls”– Jack’s fiancée and Tony’s wife – “are out celebrating”. The narrative turns on Tony’s recollection of his encounter with a breast surgeon in a bar, and how Eve had reacted, when later he’d told her about the surgeon’s voyeuristic, pornographic inclination towards his patients. Wilson carefully takes no sides here – although he gives Tony the narrative voice.
Such male-female tensions in the stories are repeated, yet not repetitive.
Sometimes they culminate in friction, at others in frisson, and almost always the sexual element is present or implied. In the awkwardly titled, yet gripping, “Dangers Far Worst Lost than Run”, two singles, Colt and Susan, meet on a bus: “When the man’s hand falls on Susan’s thigh she stays still … It stays like it’s a part of her, its softness becoming a hold.”
Susan’s fear, as it intensifies, is revealed with a breath-like stealth, as she is almost imperceptibly intimidated by Colt. She feels him watching her, drinking her in. This is Wilson’s writing at its finest, perfectly poised in that space between strangers, a feat repeated in the superlative, ‘Important Things to do’, when, at a bus stop just before dawn, Steven – by day an office cipher, by night a gambler – runs into Stevie, “a bum, not a junkie, not a jakey. An out and out bum”, shoving a supermarket trolley, a shambling cliché, singing ‘Ah belong tae Glasgow…’
Theirs is an ebb and flow confrontation – rapport and edginess in tandem – a certain duality stalking the interplay: is Stevie the down and out version of Steven’s future? A comical walk-on, perhaps a send up, or a put down? Both are isolates, gambling on chance to keep them surviving. The title’s irony makes its point.
In his finest stories Wilson’s adeptness at making you care is due not least to his pared-down technique (jump-cutting the small stuff), going straight to the heart of the matter – in conversation as well as descriptive – placing character at the nub and in the forefront of what unfolds … but very gradually, as in life. With so little happening that’s eventful the writing itself comes under scrutiny. It is limber without being loose, and frequently terse without being mannered.
It deals, beneath its acne-pocked, superficial grit, beneath its mere skin-deep “dirty realism” (a tag already adhering to Wilson’s work), with gut-human basics such as hunger, ambition, loyalty and fear, not of bogymen with weapons, nor of authority, or bureaucracy, or the law, but of something deeper and more visceral: the fears that come in the wakefulness of the night. Are we loved? Are we dwarfed by life’s possible meaninglessness?
Read “Thunder” and feel the rejection. In “The Marijuana Room,” feel the urge to run away. Life’s stasis looms balefully in “A Couple”. In “Lost in the Supermarket,” kindness vies with vindictiveness. Now and then you crave more eventfulness, a boulder to ripple the puddle. But this is a writer who pays attention and writes with such vigilance and diligent compassion that you admire and hope for more.
• Wasted in Love by Allan Wilson, Cargo Publishing, 144pp, £11.99