Magnificent Bastards. The very title brings to mind a special breed of train-wreck characters, who may be amoral, destructive wastrels, but who also carry a romantic nobility with their reprehensible actions. We canít help but admire a single-minded outsider with the courage of their convictions, no matter how cockeyed those convictions are.
In truth, while most of the drifters in Rich Hallís latest collection of short stories exist in societyís penumbra, they are hardly a proud lot. Their flaws, and their consequences are more realistic, despite the quirkiness of some of the plots, with story arcs that end up without the conveniently circular denouements of fiction.
Like his own life, the tales her alternate between the languorous American mid-West and the cosmopolitan urban Britain. And itís the yarns from the isolated communities of his homeland that are by far the most evocative, with a real sense of place thatís peculiarly out of step with wider society. Mind you, thatís my opinion as a British urbanite Ė perhaps from the trailers of Montana, the smug world of eco-worrying yummy mummies might look the more exotic.
Both Prairie Dogs, about a loner who created a contraption to vacuum up the bewildered critters from their subterranean homes, and Best Western, set in a shabby off-freeway motel, evoke an air of uncertain menace around lifeís losers; while Fort Worth, about an under-the-thumb husband adrift in a hotel far from home, positively wreaks of a life wasted. Circada, concerning lonely, isolated man who wants to end it all, is a specially gripping and atmospheric page-turner, as unforgiving as the Montana winter in which it is set and probably the best yarn in the book.
Although the tone is often unsettling, thereís an arid wit behind these semi-surreal tales; Hall is, after all, an accomplished comedian. And in other tales the comic part of his imagination is given a looser reign, such as Werewolf Of London, about the cursed creature who mingles among the human detritus of late-night Soho, barely standing out; or the fictionalised tale of how a young Rich Hall came to love words.
Besides these gems, some of the more contemporary stories seem a little more pedestrian, such as the teenager who trashed her parents house when 45,000 MySpace friends rocked up, or the gratingly self-satisfied liberals adopting their Third World child. And the departures from straightforward stories are wobbly too, especially the closing chapter in which Hall tries to shoehorn in as many anagrams of his own name. It might have been an ambitious experiment, but one which fails unreadably.
But when heís good, heís excellent; and those tales of the souls lost in the belly of America vast interior are a delight, and makes you yearn for longer-form prose set in this strangely disconcerting landscape.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett