Mostly Cloudy, Short Stories by James O’Sullivan
Urenui: Independent As Books (2017)
RRP: $20 + $4 postage. Pb, 395pp
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
In the collection Mostly Cloudy, a varied cast come face to face with their demons. These are quiet, hard-won stories, mature and youthful at once, in which the characters’ lives, their secrets, become all our lives. You’ll find here reflections on porn, boys, a funeral, romance and more. These are honest and urgent meditations on solitude, the countryside and the city, on art and on life.
In the first story ‘Porn’, two women in a café discuss the various ways of making love. After Jennifer buys a porno book, she tries to spice up her stale marriage without too much success. ‘Boys Can be Bastards’ concerns a teenage girl who sees a new boy moving in next door. When she sees the boy she likes with her friend, she decides to take revenge on her by not telling her about the plans the boy is making for her friend. The opening of ‘Everything is Good’ tells us:
Whenever I hear the pop singer Lorde mentioned in the media, which is a lot nowadays, I always think of Meaghan Scott and the time I was at high school just after Lorde released her first album. (p. 164)
The story is topical and concerns teenage girls, their boyfriends and the death of a friend’s father.
In these stories, O’Sullivan establishes his central concerns: teenage boys and girls, relationships between couples, and the uneasy life of the deepest of human experiences. As so often in O’Sullivan’s work, some of the finest stories are about love and loss. In ‘Get a Job!’, for example, ‘Frank Marshall has had a gutsful of young dole-bludgers.’ An elderly man, he has a large section around his house and decides he needs to employ someone to help him. ‘Three people answered the ad, two of them turned up for an interview. He chose a young guy named Troy.’ But when the young man scarpers, Frank decides to employ his grandson instead. There are stories about a boy tormented by his peers; a farmer who learns a lesson about naming animals and, in ‘Naked’ (p. 307), a young woman with an alcohol problem:
‘I have an alcohol problem,’ admits Amber Scott. ‘I can’t get any.’ She can’t get any alcohol because she has a more serious, underlying problem. She is broke.
In ‘Transplanted’ (p. 345), O’Sullivan writes about a man whose friend has had a heart transplant and now he is finding it difficult to know how to approach him.
He wants to catch up. It’s always a bit difficult on these occasions. Do I open with a pun? Do I ask to see his scar? Punch him on the arm and say ‘welcome back to the land of the living, mate’? Or should we sit down for a coffee and weep about the miracle of life?
The final story, ‘Fair Game’ (p. 368), opens with the startling statement: ‘It’s easy to kill someone and get away with it, if you know what you are doing.’ The protagonist is a hunter, who has grown tired of hunting after thirty years, but when a friend asks him to go with him, he agrees to go hunting on the following Saturday. Out on the hunt, he decides to kill his mate:
Then I realised I was going to do it. A wave of euphoria swept over me. Breathed deeply once, to get out the tension, then regularly. Remember, I thought to myself, this was going to be an accident. Then, almost surprising myself, I pulled the trigger before I thought any more about it.
O’Sullivan ‘plays’ his stories as a musician plays an instrument: with a crisp, authoritative, confident touch that never leaves the reader in doubt. Whether writing about the angst of teenagers, or the difficulties in a marriage, even the banalities of everyday life are raised to a truth. His stories are vigorous, expertly tuned to the personal, but never mawkish. These are stories that satisfy the ear, mind and heart.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose. She has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).