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Something Like Masterly
on 2 June 2013
An almost flawless collection of stories from John Burnside. His previous story collection, Burning Elvis, is arguably the best of his early fiction - the novels don't really start doing anything for me until Living Nowhere - and this new book is a worthy successor to Elvis. Several of the stories are not too far removed from some of the novels, with their concerns for dead-end lives marked by violence in dead-end towns - the title story, Godwit, and A Winter's Tale, for example - while others are insightful character studies of people who are lost, in limbo, passing through.
What strikes me about this collection is the subtlety of John Burnside's concerns as a writer; what matters here are the slightest nuances of emotion and thought which, although transient and deeply private, are life-changing for their characters. This is not a book in which stuff happens. (Apart from a few murders, a beating or two, and some strange, darkly erotic games.) But having said that, a good short story could be defined as one in which not much seems to happen, yet everything does, if only in implication. And that defines the pieces in Something Like Happy perfectly.
Hard to choose a favourite - Perfect and Private Things, The Bell-Ringer and Roccolo are stand-outs; perhaps the best of all is The Cold Outside, an extraordinary story about a man dying of cancer picking up - in the sense of giving a lift home to - a transvestite who has been beaten up. This wonderful story is typical of the risks John Burnside takes in this book: small moments that are at once totally ordinary, and at the same time, totally unique, like those rare dreams that, once experienced, you know have somehow added something to your life; you're not quite sure what, but things afterwards are richer, stranger.