Book review: Something Like Happy by John Burnside

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TWELVE years, and a dozen short stories ago, Burning Elvis, John Burnside’s arresting first collection, not long in the wake of his debut novel and the continuing march of his tantalisingly tainted, refracted poetry, marked the arrival of a startling, versatile literary talent.

Something Like Happy

by John Burnside

Jonathan Cape, 244pp, £16.99

The taint of the prose – a musky, melancholic, elusive inner aura, the sense of darkness expunging the promise of each new dawn, of swallowed pain behind the flicker of a smile, of aspiration to home and happiness foredoomed – marked his essence, and bred its own climate in the reader’s imagination. A state to absorb, if not inhabit.

Thus, picking up his second collection, Something Like Happy, in advance of riffling its pages to shiver the air, the title strikes you—as a trick might—as “a marshmallow with a hook in it,” as Norman 
MacCaig used to say when he proffered a compliment—the “Like” being overshadowed, prodded or burdened by some provisional hint of collapse. Ahh, happy, schmappy!

But, no, the deception lies here in the author’s double bluff: the teller of the title story, a bank clerk, concludes her tale – of crippled emotion, murder, resentment, the disappearance of a man who smuggles happiness inside him undiagnosed – attesting to happiness herself, rooted in something “long ago, some childhood pleasure”. It is an epiphany, unexpected.

This tale is one of three first published in the New Yorker. Burnside has modified it slightly, without unbalancing its essentials, displaying fastidiousness, not preciousness, an attention to minutae which he pursues in every story.

The New Yorker stories are masterpieces of nuance, mood, and withholding. Read the collection from start to finish and you will encounter them in ascending order of captivating simplicity, interspersed with ten other stories all of which (with one exception) are real achievements.

“The Cold Outside” is an almost perfect expression of knowing another’s life; in it a man, the 
narrator, is nearing death. Within his solitude we find him, truly himself, astute, anatomising his marriage, which is now moribund. In solitude he reaches out from the narrative, to astound us, not with what happens in just a few hours, which, in essentials is incidental, but with the whole life he will leave behind.

In “Peach Melba” we have the rarity of a narrator whose life has been good. “I have enjoyed it all, or most of it, enjoyed the summer days here in my tiny garden by the sea, enjoyed the oddly quiet companionship of marriage…” He is a widower, remembering only moments from his past, and it is one of these, together with his dread of having committed some awful sin for which he may never be forgiven, that gives the story its portent and tension and delivers a sweetly unforgettable ending.

Resonant endings are a hallmark of most of the stories – as is leading us to them mesmerically. The voices of Burnside’s narrators mingle the rhythms of thought and speech, switching, musing, shaping syntax. Burnside seems, with effortless ease, to smuggle us inside the skin of others, even when circumstances are punishing, as with Janice, the wife in “Slut’s Hair”, or the policeman, trapped in guilt in “The Future of Snow”.

In two of the stories – “The Deer Larder” and “Roccolo” – the endings feel flawed, so keen to surprise that they seem contrived, their 
dramatic weight in disproportion to what has led to each culmination.

However, two tales which strike and impale are the five-page “Lost Someone”, and “Godwit”, with cross-over characters mooching beady-eyed in the foreground like birds of prey, an awful incipient sense of violence being unshakeable throughout.

They do – as do almost all of these stories – what only the written word is equipped to, and which only great writers achieve: they fuse thought and emotion, manipulate time, allow us to pause, fast-forward, rewind, but above all permit (perhaps even force) us to engage in their seminal moments, to linger, move forward, returning at will.

Add to this the elemental – the darkness, weather, the giveaway semaphore of nature: a wing-beat, birdsong, the hush of everything holding its breath – the stuff of his poems as well as his prose, and you conjure the otherness that makes Burnside’s work a joy.

Something Like Happy is the best of it, one of the finest collections of stories I’ve ever read, playing with language, making magic, as though the words are playing us, perhaps playing him.