Mike McCormack's new novel Solar Bones is longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.
In his second collection of short stories, Mike McCormack joins head and heart in a series of tales which weave a fluid vision of a world morphing between the real and the hyperreal.
Amid much hollow laughter a prisoner is drawn from his cell in the middle of the night to play a video game; two rural guards ponder the security threat posed by the only man in Ireland not to have written his memoirs; a child tries to offset his destiny as a serial killer by petitioning his father for a beating; a late night American cop show becomes a savage analysis of a faltering marriage in the west of Ireland; two men turn up at the door of a slacker to give him news of his death and recruit him to some mysterious surveillance mission; an older brother worries about the health of his younger sibling; the prodigal son returns to reveal the fear and hypocrisy which lies at the heart of his brothers life.
In twelve stories McCormack’s characters find themselves trying to hold onto their identities in a world where love is too often and too easily obscured.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Mike McCormack has published the short story collection Getting It in the Head and two novels, Notes from a Coma and Crowe's Requiem. In 1996, McCormack was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. In 1998, Getting It in the Head was voted a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Read an Excerpt
The Last Thing We Need
Using the edge of his hand, the sergeant swept to one side the little bits and pieces that littered the top of his desk — a spool of thread, a little coil of silver wire, a neat little pliers and what looked at first glance like a small mound of hair and feathers. With a large space cleared in the centre of the desk, he laid down a sheet of blotting paper and placed an unusually hairy-looking insect in its centre. Only then, stark against the white background, was the hook concealed within the coloured hair and feathers visible.
"The Olive Gold Invicta," the sergeant announced happily. "What think ye of it?"
The question fell to the young guard who stood on the other side of the desk. He looked nervous, giving the giddy impression that he might bolt from the room at any moment. After a long pause and with the cautious tone of a man taking a considerable gamble he said, "It's lovely."
The sergeant smiled indulgently. "It's more than lovely, young fella, it's downright irresistible." He turned the fly over so that now it presented an iridescent green belly to the light. "You're not looking at it properly. If you were a brown trout, about two and a half to three pounds, say, and this lad lit on the surface over your head, you'd be beside yourself with happiness. One lep out of you and you'd have him." He looked up brightly. "Of course then I'd have you and that's when we'd have some sport."
And for a few moments the sergeant was lost in such a happy, heedless reverie that the young guard thought it best to remain silent. When he came back to the present the sergeant's tone was fond. "I started tying flies shortly after I came here — learned it from a man by the name of Billy Phelan. You wouldn't know him — he's dead now this good while. Billy would come into town every Tuesday to draw his pension. He'd buy two plugs of tobacco and that would do him till after second Mass on Sunday. But he'd break your heart, the same Billy. Trying to get him into a hackney at night to take him out home ... many's the night he slept in one of the cells. But for all his faults there was no one to tie flies like him." And with that the sergeant sat back and looked up at the young guard. "So tell me, what do you have?"
Startled by the sudden change of subject, the young guard's head jerked from side to side. "Nothing," he blurted, "not a thing."
The sergeant squinted at him. "There can't be nothing, there has to be something."
The young guard looked down at the fly on the desk and repeated, "There's nothing, we've looked everywhere."
"There must be something, some few pages, a document of some sort or other."
The young guard swallowed thickly.
"There must be some sort of a sketchy outline or a synopsis of some sort."
The young guard remained silent. The sergeant leaned forward onto the desk.
"What about all the obvious stuff — a short account of his inability to get on with a silent and sullen father?"
"No tender account of loving regard for his sainted mother?"
"A disturbing account of clerical abuse?"
The young guard shook his head, his misery now deepening as the note of incredulity thickened in the sergeant's voice.
"We hadn't much but what we had was clean — something along those lines?"
"Any description of him wearing a sleeveless geansaí or of his head hopping with lice?"
"No account of him going shoeless through the fields and developing a thick, protective callus on the soles of his feet?"
"A harrowing account of his struggle with the Modh Coinníollach?"
"Any character sketch of him looking up with fright and bemusement at the adult world, an account possibly offset in the third person?"
The sergeant considered a moment. His face was furrowed with anxiety. "A small parish publication, it'd be easy to miss?" he ventured quietly.
"A vanity publication, badly edited on poor-quality paper, loads of typos?"
"No sign of a tattered manuscript anywhere? Possibly in a small box that might have fallen down the back of the dresser?"
"Nothing, we did a full search, the house and outhouses, all clean."
"The fridge, did you check the icebox?"
"A block of ice cream, nothing else."
"Suffering Christ," the sergeant breathed, visibly awed and beyond caring who saw it. "And how did he account for himself?"
"He shrugged his shoulders."
"He shrugged his shoulders?"
"He shrugged his shoulders and produced a birth certificate from a coarse bag under the bed; that's all."
The sergeant finally snapped and surged to his feet. He threw his hands wide. "Fuck the birth certificate," he roared, "where's his ISBN?"
Had he taken the moment to look, he would have seen that the young guard was trembling on the verge of tears.
"It's no one's fault," the sergeant amended an hour later, his fit of temper behind him. "He might be one of those anomalies the system throws up from time to time. He might be, but I doubt it. I have a feeling ... Either way, the thing is, what are we going to do about it? Tell me again what we know about him."
The young guard turned a page of his notebook hurriedly, relieved to finally contribute something positive. "We have his name, date of birth, educational records, and invoices from his place of work."
"He owns a small breaker's yard beyond the quarry, a busy spot; he employs two other men. We also have several bank statements and electricity bills. He has a wife and two grown-up sons, all of them fully compliant; they were severely embarrassed."
The sergeant snorted dismissively. "None of that's worth a damn. How did he justify himself?"
"He said it slipped his mind."
"Slipped his mind! How the hell ... you'd swear to Jesus we were talking about a dog licence."
The sergeant opened a drawer and pulled out a glass and a small bottle. Ignoring the young guard, he poured himself a generous measure and drank. He looked off into the distance, his gaze lost in the white walls of the barracks. Then, turning the glass in his hand, he asked the young guard, "How long are you here now — two, three months?"
"This is my eighth week," the young guard said, wanly.
"Eight weeks," the sergeant sighed, "and this is what you come up with — the only man in this jurisdiction not to have written a childhood memoir." He pursed his lips and shook his head in disbelief. "That's some start to a career in law enforcement." He sipped from the glass and thought for a moment; then he motioned to the chair by the wall. "Pull it over and sit down. I'm going to tell you something."
The young guard swung in the chair, embarrassing himself again by clattering it awkwardly off the front of the desk. When he was seated the sergeant began by sweeping his hand across the room.
"I come in here every morning and I sit at this desk and the first thing I do is study all overnight intelligence and activity. I analyse and interpret and then I collate my conclusions with the Threat Matrix for this jurisdiction, chapter and verse, all twenty-seven pages of it. Then, in light of my analysis, I reprioritize anything that needs reprioritizing and I finish up by submitting my daily report. That done and God in his heaven and all other things being equal, I put the whole lot back in the vault and I open my paper and drink my mug of tea. I've been doing that for nearly forty years and I have never had a security breach like we're looking at here. Now, I'm two months away from retirement, two months away from a civic reception with a lot of nice speeches and a small gold watch with the force's crest inscribed on the back of it. But now ..." he motioned toward the young guard's notebook, "this lad crops up." He gazed off into the middle distance, a gloomy expression swelling his features. The effort it took to control his frustration made it necessary for him to place both hands on the desk. "Is there anything to be gained by bringing him in for questioning, I wonder?"
"It's standard procedure," the young guard reminded him.
The sergeant nodded. "So it is. Okay, let's bring him in for questioning. Let's get a full account from him, names, dates, a complete timeline. Bring him in."
The young guard turned and left. With the room now empty the sergeant leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. His tone was ragged with aggravation and fatigue; imploring. "The self as the first object of suspicion — each man responsible for his own surveillance. What, exactly, is so difficult about that?"
Later that evening the young guard's expression was one of open wonderment. In the dim light of the barracks his eyes fairly sparkled with disbelief.
"One man, one dole form," he breathed, "I never knew you minted that."
Behind his desk the sergeant trimmed away some loose hairs from the end of a golden fly. He spoke without looking up from his work. "You couldn't keep track of them," he said, his face expressionless. "Whatever chance you had in winter when things were quiet, you had none at all in summer when there was work to do. You'd have lads off building bits of houses, and lads cutting silage and other lads off to the bog. One of them would round up all the dole forms in the parish and drop them in here. I had to put a stop to it, I didn't know down from Adam who was coming or going. It got so bad I couldn't put a face to half the names coming across the desk to me. I couldn't tell whether there were hundreds of men out there on the dole or whether there were only a handful of men drawing benefits for hundreds of spouses and dependents. I had to put a stop to it."
"I answered a question on it in my final exam," the young guard said happily. " 'Voluntary compliance has its roots in the doctrine of one man, one dole form. Discuss.' It's still part of the core curriculum."
The sergeant smiled. "I was asked up to the college to give a lecture on it but I got out of it some way or other. There are better men than me standing in front of an audience speechifying. How did you score on it?" "I got a B plus."
"You were happy enough with it?"
The sergeant blew twice on the fly and held it up to the light. Satisfied, he laid it to one side of the desk and drew a thin sheaf of papers toward him. He eyed the documents with distaste. "So, this gent below, what did he give us?"
"Twenty-two pages, about seven thousand words."
"Give me the gist of it."
"It's the usual story. A poor upbringing at the heart of a large family dominated by an unsympathetic father; a saintly mother who intervenes from time to time on his behalf but who is largely left drifting around to no effect in the background. There is a poignant account of sharing a small truckle bed head to toe with two brothers and two sisters. It's the standard telling."
"In summary, a plucky and ultimately forgiving story of a marginal victory over poverty and adverse parenting." The young guard sat back.
"No, nothing we have not heard a million times before."
"And what the hell was so difficult about that," the sergeant wondered aloud. "Are there any internal inconsistencies or contradictions in it? Is he indexed and referenced in the other contemporary accounts?"
"And in all the revised and expanded editions?"
"Yes, several times and they all tally with his version. He flew through the polygraph, as well."
"What did the Profilers say?"
"They concur with his account; they can find nothing in it which points to a pathology of evasion or non-disclosure."
"Did they give a recommendation?"
The sergeant snorted scornfully. "I'll bet they didn't, the fuckers; say nothing that might hang them. See what they're doing there, washing their hands of it, disclaiming any responsibility. You want to watch out for that."
The sergeant considered. Evidently, things had come to a crucial juncture. By way of gathering his thoughts he swept some imaginary pieces from the surface of the desk, using a rhythmic sweeping motion as he considered. When he finally spoke it was clear he did not wish to clutter an already complex situation with further possibilities.
"The way I see it, this gent presents three options: firstly, and however unlikely it may seem, it might be an honest omission on his part — he may indeed have forgotten, in which case it means nothing in security terms; that's the first option. The second option is that the omission is intentional, that it is part of a plan and that this man presents a direct if as yet unspecified security threat. Or the third — and this is the worrying one — such an omission and the questions which arise from it may in fact be a decoy, something to draw the eye and resources from wherever it is the real threat is being developed."
The young guard noticed how the sergeant was transformed by his own thoughts. Now there was a sharpness to him, a swiftness of a piece with his sudden reasoning.
"And you showed him the machines?"
"Gave him the full tour?"
"How they worked and the damage they can do?"
"It didn't knock a stir out of him."
"No!" The sergeant grimaced and swore. "That's not good. That's the last thing we need, cranking up those machines."
The sergeant pursed his lips and sat looking into space for a long moment. Then he let his gaze drift to the edge of the table. He picked up the fly and turned it over in his hand.
"Hacklers Muddler," he said, "one of Billy's finest. He claimed it was the first he ever tied. The same Billy claimed a lot of things, though; you couldn't believe the Lord's Prayer from him."
He laid the fly on the desk and continued. "There's a great story about Billy, about the time he came up in front of Judge Hanlon ... Billy got caught red-handed with half a dozen salmon in the boot of the car. The bailiff came upon him one morning on the bank of the river, the boot thrown open and six fine salmon lying in it but no licence. So up he comes in front of Hanlon and whatever was on Hanlon that day he took a liking to Billy. Of course, Billy had no notion of pleading guilty so he starts off some rigmarole about how he was out checking stock that morning and had come upon these salmon lying there on the bank of the river. Then Billy starts playing the part of the upright citizen to the hilt.
'I put them into the boot of the car, your honour, and I was just about to turn them over to the bailiff when he comes along. It was very comical, your honour.'
'You were doing your civic duty as you saw it?' Hanlon prompted.
'Yes, your honour, because there is nothing more abhorrent to me than salmon poaching.'
"I'll always remember that phrase —'nothing more abhorrent.' Hanlon loved the bit of roguery in him and he almost fed him a complete defence that day. But he didn't swallow it whole; he let Billy off with a fine, something like a hundred pound in the court poor box. But it took the full morning spinning out that story between the two of them, Hanlon prompting him along when he got stuck. And if you were to listen to it, you'd think Billy was the most upright citizen who ever pulled on a trouser. I'd have given a lot to have seen him that day in the witness stand with the stick and the hat. There was a big piece in The Sentinel about it, two whole pages — there was great reading in it. And you tell me you've never done any fly fishing."
The sergeant shook his head wonderingly.
"You don't know what you're missing. Up there on the river, the sun shining, a flask of tea and a few sandwiches ..."
"It's skilful work?"
"Oh, it's a lot more than that," he chided. "Time stands still when you're fishing. God will not subtract from man's allotted span the hours he has spent fishing. A Babylonian proverb. Those lads knew what they were talking about. They gave us the first calendar and astrology. I'll bet you didn't know that."
The young guard shook his head. "No, I did not know that."
"Well, now you do."
"Yes, I do."
"And you were a teacher, I believe," the young guard said as he stirred two spoons of sugar into his mug of tea. "I read that somewhere."
"I was a teacher for three years," the sergeant said, putting the lid back on his lunchbox and shoving it into the drawer. "The longest three years of my life."
"You weren't happy at it?"
"No, I wouldn't say that. It's not that I wasn't happy at it; it was more that I wasn't suited to it." Now he gazed querulously at the young guard. "You're a man of broad enquiry. I see you there at your desk every day with your head stuck in some book or other. Answer me this. You look at a child and what do you see; a five- or six-year-old, what do you see when you look in their face?"
The young guard shrugged his shoulders and looked down at the floor. He hadn't anticipated a question. He sensed a trap. "A small adult," he ventured carefully, "a solid, compliant citizen in the making."
The sergeant nodded approvingly. "That's what I thought, too, once upon a time. Farmers, firemen, dental hygienists, long-jump invigilators at community games — these are the sort of things you should see in a child's face. But I never saw any of that. I saw something completely different. They'd come in the school gate with their little faces glowing and all I could see were things like ... possession with intent to supply ... conspiracy to defraud ... public order offences ... breaking and entering ... ID theft ... awful stuff like that. Plain as day those were the things I saw written across their faces. It took a toll on me. In the middle of my third year I went to the principal and told him about it. He was a kind man but he had no sympathy for me that day.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Forensic Songs"
Copyright © 2014 Mike McCormack.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Other Books by This Author,
The Last Thing We Need,
The Great Lad,
The Man from God Knows Where,
There Is a Game Out There,
There Are Things We Know,
These Two Men,
From the City of Dolls,
Of One Mind,