B>By Mike Hudson
GETTING IT IN THE HEAD, by Mike McCormack. Henry Holt & Co. 244 pp. $23.
There’s an old saw in which a girl repeats a joke she’s heard somewhere only to be met with blank stares from her audience. "I guess it wasn’t the story," she finally admits. "It must have been the way he told it."
Much the same can be said for Mike McCormack’s first volume of short fiction, "Getting It in the Head." Except that, here, the stories aren’t funny.
Or maybe they are funny. It probably just depends on your sense of humor. One of them was published in a well-known anthology of Irish comic writing and yet, on reading it here, "Thomas Crumlesh 1960-1992: A Retrospective" seems downright creepy. Gruesome even. It concerns an avant-garde artist who uses his own amputated body parts in his exhibitions, something the late Austrian artist Schwartzkogler actually did, and if this the stuff of comedy, then perhaps some of the Ring Lardner’s lighter bits should be included in new anthologies of the macabre.
Other critics have likened McCormack’s writing to that of Poe, but comparisons to the teleplays of Rod Sterling or the early short stories of Stephen King seem more apt, though still not wholly adequate. The author has taken New York City, the west of Ireland and even the ether between heaven and hell and made them his own, creating a disturbed landscape that leaves the reader at once haunted and troubled.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
And, in the guilty pleasures department, how refreshing it is to read a book about Irish violence and bloodshed in which the IRA isn’t mentioned once.
The characters who populate the stories are no less disquieting: a woman obsessed with eating ground glass, a grotesquely misshapen and homicidal father and son, a beautiful and sadistic seller of knives, or two young brothers who make a game of mayhem and murder.
This subject matter is perfectly presented by the author, whose crisp, indeed chilling, prose style wrings the maximum in terror and suspense from the weird characters and situations.
The themes explored in one of the longest and best stories, "A is for Axe," could easily have filled a novel. But McCormack’s minimalist approach — which would have made Raymond Carver proud — transforms the letters of the alphabet, each of which serves as the basis for a brief "chapter," into a masterpiece of short fiction, without a doubt one of the best published anywhere in recent memory.
Written in the first person from the point of view of a physically deformed murderer, the story delves into the youthful fascination with violence, the sometimes difficult relationships between fathers and sons, and the impact of popular culture itself.
The author writes: "More than any detail of my crime it is this axe that has elevated me to a kind of cult status in this green and pleasant land of ours. I am not alone in sensing a general awe that at last, small-town Ireland has thrown up an axe murderer of it’s very own. It bespeaks a kind of burgeoning cosmopolitanism."
Tough stuff indeed. And good, very good.
Despite what seems to be a concerted effort on the part of most major American publishers to eliminate it, the short story remains a vibrant and important literary form. It is common knowledge that the big houses here routinely refuse to look at first books of short stories unless the author has been published to acclaim elsewhere or also has a novel in the works that can be contracted as well.
In McCormack’s case, Henry Holt & Co. was twice blessed. "Getting It in the Head" was originally published in the UK two years ago, where it was hailed by critics and went on to win the prestigious Rooney Prize. Additionally, the author is finishing up a novel that is expected to come out sometime next year.
The careers of Patrick McCabe, Eoin MacNamee and Colum McCann all began in a more or less similar fashion. Many young American writers of short fiction have not been so fortunate.
But the startling and original debut of a brilliant young writer is perhaps the wrong place to reflect on the vagaries of the American publishing world.
McCormack has achieved that rarest of feats — the creation of a literary work that is at once compelling and completely unlike anything one has read before.