SUBWAYand takes off in the new collection of Benjamin Myers stories. Whether it’s the stone age or the 70s, a fruit picker or an astronaut, they are caught in traps of their own making. A farmer, dreaming of a vacation abroad, gets tangled up in his high-end potato picker, his foot “squashed and rolled up like the last curl of a toothpaste tube”; a ranger is trapped in his own cage; And in The Whip Hand, the heir to a fairground dynasty is crushed under the weight of his own ambition when he erects a hilltop monument to his late father, who died after getting stuck – that motive again – in the most famous family walk.
While horror is always ready to intrude, Male tears it is of varied style. Many stories, like a father’s three-paragraph reflection on aging, are barely a page long, but there is also a digressively self-fictional article about having a panic attack at a Brueghel exhibition in Vienna. If many are downright conversational (like Suburban Animals, whose narrator recalls a childhood friend with Down syndrome, attacked by the school bully), others only hint at what’s going on. There are open endings but also traps, as in the story of a worker who, blessed with “the strength and endurance of 10 men,” fascinates his boss’s young nephew, who imagines what the man’s girlfriend must be like after see hanging a dress. in your caravan.
Myers’ project, letting out ideas of what it means to be a man, often requires its protagonists to be killed or maimed, but not always. A story in which a music journalist interviews a celebrated folk singer highlights the journalist’s self-absorption in telling the story from both points of view so that we see how little he understands his subject (there is probably an element of self-loathing here – Myers was a once editor of Melody maker).
The epigraph of the book comes from Germaine Greer: “The tragedy of machismo is that a man is never man enough.” In these stories, that is a state of affairs to be observed from afar, worthy of satire or karmic revenge (all those accidents). Steve Hollymanis a new and shameless novel, Lairs, takes a different approach. Not for him the comforts of irony; instead, he’s uncomfortable with his violent and bigoted cast for offering an insider critique of male bravado.
Focusing on the aftermath of a nightclub fight in a small Midlands town, it is narrated by a series of male voices. There’s Ade, a jobless philosophical dropout who imagines himself a Nietzschean superman; the Colbeck call center worker, whose craving for random street violence is fueled by his anger at a two-time girlfriend; and Duncan, consciously beta of his alpha, with the air of a scapegoat from the start as he ends up following them on a disastrous road trip in search of aggro.
Some kind of run over whodunnit, Lairs it draws suspense from Hollyman’s decision not to play fair with the reader by relying on the cunning use of a character’s nickname to keep us in the dark as the action progresses through point-of-view chapters tagged with names. The rude description is reminiscent of Irvine Welsh: after a fight, Colbeck says his hands appear to have “been in a fisting orgy with five abnormal menstruating”; two pages later, he says that a relative’s tracheostomy scar “oozed a viscous fluid like exhausted yellow sperm squeezed from an octogenarian puncture.”
Like Welsh, Hollyman hangs her characters to dry while using them for narrative fuel and flavor. His decision to inhabit them in the first person, or, in Colbeck’s second-person narrative, to challenge you to walk in his bloody shoes, is a risk. But the tightrope act reminds us that immersion is no less effective than observation as a way of understanding the disappointment and suppressed longing that both he and Myers describe as the luck of a man.
Male tears by Benjamin Myers is published by Bloomsbury (£ 16.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism