Mother of Invention

Picking up a single-author collection of short stories is like trying an unknown restaurant. You’re hungry for something, yet justifiably suspicious if it appears too commercial or franchised. In either case, book or restaurant, a recommendation from a friend or trustworthy source helps; but there have been occasions – too many occasions – when all you got for your money and your troubles was a heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach.

A new work – any new work – by Colm Toibin, book, review, intellectual or philosophical inquiry, comes with a price tag. Something is expected of you. You must come forth with bags packed, ready to be taken somewhere. The trip is neither the cost-conscious airline looking over its metaphorical shoulder at the scold of bankruptcy nor is it the chocolate-on-the-pillow amuse bouche of the luxury resort. As a critic, a biographer, memoirist and novelist, Toibin has earned a right to the trust of the serious reader. This is not to suggest even remotely that he is all business and no pleasure, all seriousness and too busy for humor, so engrossed by the force of his own concerns that he lacks empathy for ours. At the splendid midpoint of his career, he is one of three or four living writers who are credible artists in their daytime job, accessible critics after hours. Some of his contemporaries would include John Banville, a fellow Dubliner; Pico Iyer, an American; Jonathan Raban, an Englishman-turned-American; and Julian Barnes, an Englishman.

Toibin turns the figure and fabric of the Irish writer on its head. He does not imbue his prose with blarney, blather or bloat, nor do his characters read from some fey agenda. They sound Irish enough to be real, closer in agenda and tone to James Joyce or William Trevor than the Hollywood trumpeting of Barry Fitzgerald or the one-size-fits-all Irishness of Pat O’Brien and Maureen O’Sullivan. The accustomed reader of any particular work of Toibin, whether a review, novel, or autobiography, would suspect his tool kit to include a chisel, an ice pick, perhaps even a nut cracker rather than the more prosaic G4 Powerbook or PC. Nor would he expect to hear Toibin shambling home after an evening’s carouse, intoning Thomas Moore’s:

The harp that once through Tara's halls

The soul of music shed,

Now hangs as mute on Tara's walls

As if that soul were fled.

So sleeps the pride of former days,

So glory's thrill is o'er,

And hearts that once beat high for praise

Now feel that praise no more.

This is very much the world of now, informed by local dialect, still keen to boundaries set in place by the British, but keen to move away from old ruts, eager to encounter and forge the identity of the 21st century changes in fiction. “For a long while,” Toibin said in an interview, “no Irish novel ended with a wedding, there was no Irish Jane Austen, no images of domestic comfort and celebration.” While much of his work is a series of direct encounters with severe moral choices, there is no overview of pessimism, no weight of angst from old struggles. Instead there is a sense of calmness – if not actual peace – waiting just beyond the boundaries of the conflicts so hard-wired into mankind. In much fiction written by Irish authors, The Troubles – issues of Irish independence and the Shia/Sunni-like conflicts between Catholic and Protestant Ireland – appear as major issues. Although he produced the nonfiction work “Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border,” Toibin keeps that version of The Troubles out of his fiction, focusing instead on the troubles of relationships and expectations of them. Some of his people are loners looking wistfully for relationships, others are ankle-braceleted to relationships they wish they were free of.

“Mothers and Sons” (Scribner) is a lovely and inviting discovery. It is a collection of nine new Toibin short stories, some, such as “The Use of Reason,” taking place almost entirely in the head of an unnamed character. But what a character he is:

Your mind is like a haunted house. He did not know where

the phrase came from, if someone had said it to him, if he had

read it somewhere, or if it was a line from a song. The house

from which he had stolen the paintings had all the look of a

haunted house. Maybe that was how the phrase occurred to

him. Stealing the paintings had seemed like a good idea at

the time, but not now. He had stolen the Rembrandt picture

which appeared two months after the robbery on the front

page of The Evening Herald, plus a Gainsborough and two

Guardis and a painting by a Dutchman whose name he

could not pronounce.

As the title implies, “Mothers and Sons” explores the relationship between these two points of view, enhancing the light of inquiry until it becomes a laser, useful for the dramatic surgery of cutting away protective layers.

Could the impulse for this splendid collection have had its origin in Toibin’s earlier novel, “The Blackwater Lightship” (1999), in which Declan, the young protagonist, is dying of AIDS, trying to reconcile his life and impending death with his family, who do not know he is a homosexual? Perhaps “The South,” and “The Story of the Night” added to his thematic vision for “Mothers and Sons” – they are all, in one way or another, about the tangle and turmoil of familial issues so exactingly portrayed in his earlier novels.

In “The Name of the Game,” Nancy is suddenly widowed. Trying to collect her thoughts and strategies to deal with the wreck of a business her feckless husband has left her, Nancy has responded to a letter from Mr. Wallace, manager of the bank in the small town where she and her children live.

“Have you,” Mr. Wallace asks, “sought advice?”

“No. I have been running the business as best I can and now, since I have got a letter from you, I have come to see you.”

“Running is a good word, all right,” he said, pursing his lips again….“I have three checks with your signature on them out there somewhere and they might seem like small amounts to you, but these amounts are not small to us.”

It gets worse for Nancy; among other things, she cannot go to her husband’s family, nor can she see any positive hope in the ailing business. With a remarkable daring, she turns her convenience store into a thriving fish and chips outlet, cleans out the grocery shelves to better accommodate beer and wine. The sheer, exuberant transformation of the business arouses the suspicion of the town, but best of all is the mother-son relationship. Nancy’s teen-aged son becomes a skilled and devoted accountant and manager of records, trumping her entrepreneurial passions with the éclat of one who has found his true calling. And there we have the irony and fun of the story: Nancy wants to cash out and head for Dublin. Her son, his nose filled with the scent of fish and chips and the daily profits, aspires to the ironic goals Toibin has set loose in this joyous romp.

The longest of these nine stories, “A Long Winter,” wrenches its deeply felt emotions from the mother-son relationship, offering a splendid introduction to the deft tenderness Toibin brings to the novel. We’ll be too engrossed in the pull of events and our sympathy for the characters to argue much over whether “A Long Winter” is indeed a short story or a long novel; it is truly indicative of the empathy and longing Toibin evoked in his most recent novel, “The Master,” in which his protagonist is an embodiment of another haunted mother’s son, the novelist and short story writer, Henry James.

“Mothers and Sons” is a book to keep, to return to, to leap from, buoyed by one of the more skillful and non-obtrusive writers at work in contemporary letters.