Tuesday 29 March 2016

Review by Laurie Cusack of "Mr. Jolly" by Michael Stewart

All the way through Michael Stewart’s collection of short stories the everyday is peeled back far enough for the reader to register the absurdities of existence. ‘The Naked Man’ reads like a paean to Stephen Gough the nude eccentric rambler who refuses to wear clothes and is continually imprisoned for his acts of conscience. Stewart confronts our conformity and our conditioning and our prejudices and begs a question.  The tension he creates politically unsettles and challenges the reader.

Stewart’s crafted text certainly leaves an after-burn. All his stories’ pay-offs linger. His minimalist style and economy reminds me of Raymond Carver and the dirty-realism school of writing. I like the absence of quotation marks and the absence of the word said after direct speech, which work to create an impact on the reader.    

 His existential musings in the title story ‘Mr Jolly’ reminds one of how lonely life’s journey can become. How loneliness encroaches on us all, eventually. It made me think about people’s electronic lives. How alienating life is nowadays. A scarecrow performs the same function in this absurd tale until our protagonist tires of it and it’s sacrificed on a fire: burnt-out like its maker. In ‘Mann,’ the human biological machine comes under scrutiny, as time, routine, speed and stress impact on a commute to work. What seems important swamps Mann’s survival mechanism: split second decisions destroy. Rushing against the clock blinds his common sense. Mann’s conditioning makes him a slave to routine and punctuality. What a waste. His spiritual epiphany comes too late to dynamite his life. The story forces the reader to take stock. Bravo! 

Stewart confronts life’s truths and painful problems with economy and thoughtfulness. But what really lifts this collection are Stewart’s quirky insights that inhabit these cracking tales. An undercurrent of unease concerning our modern lives is realised within this text, which is refreshingly raw and new. The everyday is always unusual and different, if we only stepped back to see. Michael Stewart steps back and he does see and he cares  ̶  and this is what really makes this collection fizz.  

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack is scraping at the underbelly of Irish Diaspora through a collection of short stories for his Creating Writing PhD at Leicester University. His writing influences include: John McGahern, Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Claire Keegan and Colin Barrett.

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