Wednesday 24 January 2018

A decent effort, but no better than a writing group

John Spain Books Editor

IN fairness to Eamonn Lillis as a writer, his Listowel Writers' Week winning story, 'Being's Road', should be read as though it was written by someone you've never heard of before. But because of what we do know, it's very difficult to separate the story from the writer and his recent past.

If anything, the temptation to search for resonances is heightened by the famous lines from an Emily Dickinson poem that Lillis uses both to provide a title and to set up his story:

Our Journey had advanced

Our Feet were almost come

To that fork in Being's Road

Eternity by term

That can hardly be accidental. The existential fork in the road is something we all face at the end and sometimes at moments of crisis before, as Lillis knows to his cost. It seems likely that the writer is playing with our expectations.

The story itself is mildly engaging but lacks power. It's about a fugitive on the road in what appears to be the empty American mid-west, driving through the night, fleeing from something undefined (but probably the law) and for reasons that are not explained.

"For hour after hour, my world was a narrow tunnel of light, with no other company save the drone of the engine and the vibration of rolling wheels on the asphalt. No oncoming vehicle had driven past me for ages . . . For a little while I felt almost at peace as I stopped thinking and simply allowed myself to become another part of the car's mechanism as we powered through the night. But the anxiety never really left me and I checked the rear view mirror with a metronomic fearfulness."

What has the fugitive done? We don't know.

He stops at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The pause allows him a moment of clarity. Not much happens. He washes up. A petrol attendant appears and asks: "Fill her up?" There's an air of the movie 'Paris,Texas' about the proceedings.

"A sign on the door stated, 'Restroom. Ask Proprietor for key.' I tried the door. It was unlocked.

"Inside, I groped along the cold-tiled wall until my fingers hit the light switch. The room flickered into existence. I went to the sink, turned on the tap, rolled up my sleeves and splashed cold water on to my face. I looked into the mirror and saw a figure dressed in jeans and rumpled tan shirt . . . it took me a few moments to realise that the hollow-eyed face was actually me."

Clearly, Lillis (pictured) can write. Describing the signs of the approaching dawn, he says: "The dark of the sky had eased itself a little from the pitch-black earth."

The petrol station appears in the distance as "a tiny concrete island, afloat in the still dark and formless world".

Pausing for a moment in the forecourt, he suddenly becomes aware of "a desire to linger, to see things as they stood . . . to stand awhile on the tiled floor (of the washroom) . . . or feel the grit of the paved forecourt beneath my shoes."

It's all effectively atmospheric and intriguing. But the end is less successful, missing the revelatory wrap-up of a good short story.

Instead, it's opaque and ambiguous, with a hint of menace. There is no one else around, except him and the attendant, who has faded into an adjoining workshop. The fugitive, no longer feeling in a hurry, decides that he has time to polish the old petrol pumps, maybe even tidy up the old store a bit, which is more than a little confusing.

Refreshing

"Stepping out from the garage onto the empty forecourt, I looked up and down the road, a grey gunmetal strip vanishing away in the pre-dawn gloom. Nothing moved."

But what has happened to the pump attendant who appeared briefly? He seems to have vanished.

The story concludes: "I had plenty of time. There was no rush. Seldom indeed did travellers venture down this road, but sooner or later someone would come. Someone always does."

As short stories go, it's not a bad attempt. It's always refreshing to read a story by an Irish writer that's not set in rain-sodden rural Ireland or Dublin's urban wastelands.

The Eamonn Lillis story shows promise . . . but the truth is that it's not much beyond the level of the average writing group.

Irish Independent

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