The Intellectual

“To understand the world, one must read,” is what his fellow barfly told him.

   He was twenty-seven. His educational experiences, in the academic sense, were scant. He left school having just turned seventeen. He met girls and alcohol and fell in love with both. He worked whatever job would put enough money in his pocket for weekend adventures. Ten years quickly passed by and he was still spending his weeks working and his weekends drinking.

   His life was simple, and he liked it that way.

   He enjoyed quiet drinks in hushed bars. That’s when he’d get talking to his fellow barlfies.

   They’d talk about football.

   “The striker should be dropped, he’s an overrated pile!”

   They’d talk about politics.

   “Those shower of toerags should all be lined up against a wall and shot!”

   They’d talk alcohol.

   “Twelve year, me hole!”

   In work, he drove a forklift. It was a cushy number, despite the low temperatures in the warehouse during winter. The new employees would be given the least appealing tasks, and he’d spend most of his days driving and manoeuvring pallets onto high shelves.

   His job was simple, and he liked it that way.

   One weekend, when enjoying a few pints at the local, he and his fellow barflies noticed an unfamiliar face. He was an old man of about sixty who possessed patchy grey hair and an air of eruditeness. He drank wine, unlike most of those at the bar lined up as if in a seated identity parade for beer brands; their drink of choice was stout.

   The unfamiliar face hadn’t said much apart from a ‘hello’ here and there. But when a conversation about a recent political scandal began, the grey-haired man formed a full sentence in their presence for the first time:

   “To understand the world, one must read,” he said.

   This prompted raised eyebrows from a few sitting at the bar. The old man gulped the remainder of his pint, stood up, and fixed his stool under the bar.

   “One must read,” the old man repeated, and then left.

   And so he read. From Chomsky to Che, Marcuse to Marx, Sartre to Shaw, he read slowly and earnestly. In his spare time he studied their writings in great depth. On his breaks in work, instead of reading the newspaper in the canteen with his colleagues, he read a book in the empty warehouse office. When he took baths, which he’d always preferred to showers, he would read philosphy. When he relaxed on the couch in the evenings, instead of switching on the latest TV series, he read history. When he sat on the toilet seat, instead of browsing on his phone, he read poetry.

   His workdays soon began to bother him. He would ask colleagues their thoughts on the labour theory of value and modern monetary theory, and would be greeted with perplexed stares. He would quote Neruda and be met with derisive laughter.

   At the pub, things weren’t much better. When discussing politics and the government’s role in society, he would speak haughtily and authoritatively; he scoffed at suggestions from his fellow barflies who hadn’t read the literature.

   Soon, he was no longer welcome at the pub, and his work colleagues were always wary of what he would come out with next.

   He found a new bar in a more affluent part of town (three bus rides were necessary) and sat self-importantly in a corner with a book and glass (he’d transitioned to wine). He decided to wear reading glasses, despite not needing them. His attire began to change, too: gone were the navy tracksuits, and in their place were chinos and checked shirts. Every Friday and Saturday, he would sit alone in the new pub with a new book by one of his favourite thinkers. He would overhear conversations by small gatherings of friends and roll his eyes. He would chuckle to himself at the assessment of government by tipsy barflies, whom he now privately referred to as “the lay”.

   It was not long before his work colleagues began to notice changes to his lexicon, too. Recent additions included the words ‘incredulous’, ‘polemic’, ‘sobriquet’, ‘pernicious’, and ‘sanguine’. There were new phrases such as ‘mode of production’, ‘critical theory’, and the ‘theory of exploitation’, which he used regularly and with ever-growing confidence and a self-righteous tone.

   Eventually, he even joined a book club. At the first meeting, he confidently shook hands with the fellow attendants. He said aloud, “To understand the world, one must read,” which was greeted with condescending smiles (which he mistook for genuine politeness). When he offered his opinion on the labour theory of value, a number of men in the circle laughed aloud.

   He frowned and shrugged it off. I’ve now read myriad books by some of the best and brightest minds, he said to himself. Perhaps these people don’t actually read and just get together for a social gathering.

   So the book club wasn’t for him, and he continued with his private personal studies and his work. But eventually he grew restless and decided he wanted to find a new career. He left the warehouse and took some time to think about where people who read books would work. He was now an intellectual, after all, and it wasn’t long before he decided that the perfect role for him could be found at government level.

   On his first day in the Department of Finance, he offered to his new colleagues his thoughts on the labour theory of value and modern monetary theory, which was met with approving, earnest nods. To this day, his credentials have never been questioned, and rumour has it he’s in line for a hefty pension.

   He’s now surrounded by fellow intellectuals, and he likes it that way.

Header image by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

Six Short Stories

 

 

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the following well-travelled quote many times:

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

You’ve likely seen it attributed to Mark Twain. Until recently, I would’ve thought that was correct. It was, in fact, originally written by French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer Blaise Pascal (thanks for that nugget of knowledge, Eric).

But let’s get back to the quote…

What does it mean when it’s applied to writing short fiction, as it regularly is? Well, if it isn’t obvious, it means short stories take a lot of time to perfect — they’re difficult. You need time to trim the fat, or kill your darlings as the literati like to say. Some of the greatest novelists who’ve put pen to paper didn’t, or don’t, have the skill (or, perhaps, the temperament) to write short fiction. Many authors over the years have said writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a novel; there’s less room to play, there’s certainly less time to say all that you want to say — basically, you’re more restricted in the short-fiction world.

I’ve been writing short fiction on and off for a number of years while working on a number of screenplays and a novel. Am I near as strong as I’d like to be when it comes to the shorter work? No, but the more I write the better I get. And I’m putting together a short story collection that I hope to publish in the future (out of all the titles I’ve created over the years, this one is my favourite).

I’ve also been reading short stories for a long time. Some writers I’ve been reading for years, some I’ve only discovered, and some I’ve known about but have only gotten round to devouring recently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few short stories worth reading written by American writers. I won’t go into much detail, as going in blind is always better. Of course, I do recommend buying the collections in which these stories feature.

So, here they are:

 

 

1. Nathan Englander — The Twenty-Seventh Man

From the collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’ (1999).

Englander 1

Nathan Englander made an immediate impact on the literary world with the release of his debut short story collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’. The first story in the collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, is an allusion to the Night of the Murdered Poets  the execution of 13 Soviet Jews on the orders of Stalin, on August 12, 1952.

The short story isn’t available online, but you can read the script for the play based on it here. Or, you could go buy the collection in your favourite second-hand bookstore (for you Irish readers, it’s gotta be Chapters on Parnell Street).

 

2. Jennifer Egan — The Stylist

From the collection ‘Emerald City’ (1993).

Egan - Emerald City 1

Jennifer Egan is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction ‘A Visit from the Good Squad’. I say ‘work of fiction’ because the book has been characterised as both a short story collection and a novel — Egan herself has stated that she doesn’t consider it to be either of the aforementioned.

What is unequivocal about her first published work ‘Emerald City’ is that it’s most definitely a collection of short stories. The Stylist, the first story in the collection, focuses on a divorced fashion stylist on a shoot in Africa with a photographer and three teenage models.

Read it here.

 

3. Raymond Carver — Errand

From the collection ‘Cathedral’ (1983).

Carver - Cathedral 1

Raymond Carver has inspired countless short and long fiction writers since he became one of America’s best-loved writers with the publication of his collections ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (the latter of which has had its title borrowed by a number of writers, including Haruki Murakami and Mr. Englander mentioned above).

One of the greatest influences on Carver was the great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. In Errand — a tribute to his idol — Carver re-imagines the final hours of Chekhov’s life, but brings the focus of attention on a young bellboy.

(Note: This idea has prompted me to develop a short story about Carver’s final hours, the same way he wrote about his idol. I’m still working on it…)

You can read Errand here.

 

4. John Updike — Pigeon Feathers

From the collection ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962).

pigeon-feathers

The American heavyweight John Updike is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the 20th century. He’s most famous for his ‘Rabbit’ series, which centres around the life of former high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Two novels from the series — ‘Rabbit Is Rich’ and ‘Rabbit at Rest’ — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In Pigeon Feathers, a young boy adjusting to life at the farmhouse he’s recently been moved to with his parents and ailing grandmother, faces a spiritual crises after reading a work by H.G. Wells.

Read it here.

 

5. Stephen  King — Premium Harmony

From the collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ (2015).

Stephen King 2

Stephen King. He’s probably the most famous author around; the man who’s seen countless stories and novels he’s written find their way onto the big screen, who’s been on the bestsellers list more times than he can remember. He’s not someone this writer has read very often (honestly, I just haven’t been able to get into his books), but he has written a short story in a similar vein to Raymond Carver, which is probably why I like it so much. In his introduction to Premium Harmony in the collection, King confesses that he’d only discovered the work of Carver shortly before writing the story, which is quite surprising since the work was published in 2009 — some 21 years after the short-story master’s death.

In Premium Harmony — which is unquestionably a pastiche  a car ride to a birthday party takes a turn when a couple stop off at a gas station to pick up a gift. This one is darkly comic, and hugely enjoyable.

You can read it here.

 

6. S.J. Coules — Photographs

From the collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’

photographs-3

You’re damn right I’m plugging my own work.

My short story collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’ is definitely a work in progress. Out of all the short stories I’ve completed, four, maybe five will feature in this collection. The rest are to be written  many have been fleshed out and partially developed, some I haven’t even thought of yet. Of the completed works that I plan to include in the book, one has been published, the others have either been submitted to literary magazines, or are sitting on the laptop, eagerly waiting to be read.

In Photographs — my first published short story  a crotchety man who’s found himself old and with nothing but pictures, alcohol, and television to pass the time, encounters an irritating local kid.

You can read it here.

 

Anyway, last orders have been called.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .