I think Nell Dunn is marvelous and she was just what I needed this weekend, though her story "Out with the Girls" from Infinite Riches is just the tip of the iceberg of what I read these past couple of days, and all of it good! The story is taken from the book Up the Junction which I read earlier this year. I remember this particular story, which isn't really a story per se so much as a sketch or vignette. She captures the essence of life in Battersea London so well. If you want to know what it was like to live there in the Sixties, you might well pick her book up for a taste of life as a young working class woman. The descriptions are good, but it's really the language, the dialogue that give her writing such oomph. The editor of the collection, in the introduction, called the women "refreshingly cheeky" and I think she was spot on.
The story is narrated by Lily, an heiress, who has moved to Battersea and becomes friends with Rube and Sylvie. The three are out for a night on the town.
"We stand, the three of us, me, Sylvie and Rube, pressed up against the saloon door, brown ales clutched in our hands. Rube, neck stiff so as not to shake her beehive, stares sultrily round the packed pub. Sylvie eyes the boy hunched over the mike and shifts her gaze down to her breasts snug in her new pink jumper. 'Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!' he screams. Three blokes beckon us over to their table."
It's hard to say who picks up whom, but off the girls go with the blokes ("dirty ginks" they say cheekily wondering if any of them are married and not letting on). On to the backs of the men's motor bikes they go and off for an unauthorized (and unsupervised) midnight swim. Over the fense and into the water only to have to jump out again when the lights turn on.
This isn't the sort of story where anything happens, but the back and forth banter is what makes it such an enjoyable read. A bit of the dialogue and you'll see what the editor meant:
"We were crushed into the toilets. All round girls smeared on pan-stick"
"'I can't go with him, he's too short'."
"'All the grey glitter I put on me hair come off on his cheek and I hadn't the heart to tell him'."
"'I wouldn't mind goin' with a married man 'cept I couldn't abear him goin' home and gettin' into bed with his wife'."
"'Me hair all right?'."
"'Yeah, lend us yer lacquer'."
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"'Know what happend in work today? I was sittin' on the steps outside McCrindle's eatin' me dinner when this Fred, Indian gink, says, 'Look out, love, I can see yer drawers'." So I says, 'What color are they then?' 'Pink,' he says. 'No, they're not', I says 'because I ain't got none on'."
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I'm going to order Nell Dunn's Poor Cow, which I what I am sure I meant to order a while back but had a little problem with getting the right book into the virtual order cart . . . Nell Dunn is an easy read but a good one and an authentic one, too.
Next week's story is a long one (after this week's very short selection) by Edith Wharton, "Souls Belated" which is, I think, about an affair. It's online here if you want to read along!
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This week's New Yorker short story (March 16 issue) "All You Have to Do" by Sarah Braunstein is also available online (two opportunities for you to read a short story--for free--nudge, nudge, go on, read a short story this week!). There are coming of age stories, I wonder if there can be a coming of age short story?
"It was 1972 and Sid Baumwell was hungry. For the salt at the bottom of the pretzel dish, for frozen Mars bars, for appreciation from someone who wasn't a blood relation--preferably a girl with pink cheeks and big sleepy eyes, like the one in 'The Graduate,' his second-favorite movie of all time."
It's that little truth that writers pick up on and shape a story around that makes short stories so pleasurable (irregardless of who the characters are and whether they reflect any part of my own life--some things are universal no matter age or gender) and a success since there isn't a lot of space for lots of plotting. I see this desire for appreciation and recognition in my own niece, now sixteen. There was a time when I was the one she idolized and then there was nothing I could really do to impress her or convince her but if a favorite teacher, for example, recommended a book, she was all of a sudden interested. This is what happens to Sid in the story. He crosses paths with the representative of an aluminum foil company in the supermarket where he is holding a drawing for a lifetime supply of Reynolds Wrap!
"The man extended a hand. This was at a point in Sid's life that he was still flattered when an older man shook his hand, flattered by a handshake so hard it hurt. The handshake went on for a beat too long, but Sid didn't know that."
It's a curious sort of situation, maybe, and one you might not think be tempted to read about, but all the little details create this quite true to life world, that moment when a young person learns something about life, when your life crosses paths with a stranger and it changes you in a quietly subtle way.
I read a bit, too, from Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields but I am planning a little "Irish reading" post on Tuesday, so will share my stories with you then.