Wednesday 28 September 2016

Books: Funny haha as well as funny peculiar

Short­stories: Beneath the Earth, John Boyne, Doubleday, hdbk, 272 pages, €22.50

John Boland

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

John Boyne: his short stories include a contemporary 'Araby
John Boyne: his short stories include a contemporary 'Araby
Beneath the Earth by John Boyne

Our reviewer on the first collection of amusing and disturbing stories from a bestselling novelist

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It's not often that I find myself bursting out laughing at a book of short stories, but that's what happened quite a lot while I was reading John Boyne's debut collection. The author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas can be a very funny writer.

Not, it must be said, in the opening story, 'Boy, 19', which is narrated by an alienated young Dublin guy who declares in the first sentence "I started charging for sex a few days after my 19th birthday", and then proceeds to tell us of his loveless encounters with a series of middle-aged men, some of them prone to violence, and of his non-relationship with his dysfunctional mother.

And not, either, in 'Amsterdam', which begins "You have your first drink since your son's murder in a small bar on Amstel's curve", and which features another alienated main character, here serially cheating on his wife and punching an annoying American girl in the face during a tour of the Anne Frank house.

And certainly not in the title story, whose ominous first sentence ("It was no easy task to dig the child's grave") doesn't even begin to hint at the horrors soon to be revealed by its psychopathically deranged narrator.

But there are truly comic stories here, too, not least 'The Schleinermetzenmann', which has great fun with made-up German phrases and which concerns a narrator who has an overfond relationship with the cattle he's raising and a less than amiable reunion with the childhood friend who has become an acclaimed but idiotically pretentious novelist. In their teenage years, the friend had taken the narrator's sister to her school dance. "Of course I had sex with him", she now tells her appalled brother. "It was my Debs. It would have been rude not to."

Novelists feature, too, in 'A Good Man', which is narrated by a Dublin-based hitman whose favoured targets are global bankers and who is also enrolled in an adult education literature course. "What's it about?" he asks his female boss of the latest John Banville novel. "A young lad ridin' an oul one", she replies. The story also gets a lot of comic mileage out of Ryanair, though Michael O'Leary mightn't be too amused.

And I chuckled, too, at 'Haystack Girl', whose blithely unaware young narrator posts sexually explicit footage of his sister and her boyfriend on social media in retaliation for her similar electronic outing of his revelation to her that he's gay. The story has serious undertones, though Boyne manages to make the telling of it very funny.

Indeed, the stories are never less than compellingly readable, even when some of them don't work, and the author's fondness for transgressive male narrators can occasionally be troubling. This is especially true of the title story, which is as nasty a tale as you're likely to encounter anywhere, and the fact that it's placed at the very end means that the reader is left with an unpleasant aftertaste.

That's a pity because the story that precedes it, a contemporary reimagining of 'Araby', has an ending that's as affectingly desolate as the Joyce original and that would have provided a fine conclusion to an arresting collection.

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