Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery, €12.95, 227 pp, ISBN: 978190653978
At seventy, after suffering several disappointments, the first being my mother, the second being me, my father died. One evening he gathered the family in his room and asked if anyone had any questions. No one did. The next day he died.
These dark lines, which open one of Nicole Flattery’s stories are deadpan, humorous and cold; equally they could be said to be concise and honest. Either way this is the no-bullshit world her characters inhabit. There is no room here for the world’s prevarications and presumed values, which Flattery’s highly intelligent but consciously non-intellectual women have instinctively rejected. What’s left then is on the empty side, emotionally speaking; smart women navigating an uninteresting world. Their sangfroid, however, is so seductive that the reader tends to sympathise, or at least respond with appalled fascination to the lives which unfold in these compelling stories.
Flattery’s women- and all her lead characters are women- manage to be engaging, hilarious and disturbing at the same time. Men, when they show up for their bit parts, are mostly idiots or innocents, straight guys to her Beckettian stand-ups. Flattery describes her world in lean, unaffected and controlled prose. It is her skill in finding a tone to capture the dystopian world of her imagination that makes this debut collection so remarkable and enjoyable.
“Show Them a Good Time” is the story that gives the book its title. The main character is working -if you could call it work- in a garage which may or may not be open for business, a place where strange people sit to watch the Hamm- and-Clov-like characters go about their day. The story features a twenty seven year-old whose mother does not believe the job brings out the best in her. It seems she worked previously in the porn industry; men who call to the garage tell her she is not as hot in real life. Management is a bouncy round woman; she is the organiser of a rehabilitation scheme for those who have fallen through the cracks of the ordinary. Its purpose is to guide its clients towards the promised land of long-term employment. She will not succeed in this case.
There is a mutual dependence between the main character and her fellow trainee, Kevin. But management disposes of the vulnerable Kevin. He “wasn’t panning out”, management explains. The main character asks “Can I have Kevin back please”. This won’t happen. Post Kevin, she seems to fall away from her rehabilitation. She takes to “becoming a resigned passenger in cars that traversed the motorway” and find herself standing outside bars “without my coat, shoes and underwear, wondering where exactly they were because- sadly- I was not wearing them.”
For the main character, the ordinary of her past was letting people do what they wanted to her on screen and being hit in the middle of the night by a boyfriend who called her baby and probably didn’t know her name. But don’t expect feminist realism. Our character doesn’t give a shit, which is a real challenge to the reader who, it can be assumed, does tend to give some sort of a shit.
In “Sweet Talk” another nameless character is thirteen going on fourteen. Even more than is the case for most of Flattery’s women, the outside world hardly registers for this individual. The midland murderer holds some interest and her breasts are coming on. That’s about it. The absence of any kind of grounding in life, along with her age, her “lost soul” mother, the small town emptiness around her and her own cussedness creates an eerie atmosphere, as though a prelude to horror.
This girl might do anything and in the end she does what she wants, she removes her childish underwear and awaits the return of an Australian labourer to his squalid caravan. Sex, in Flattery’s collection, is either lifeless or dysfunctional; we assume it will be no different in this case. The good news, for our character, is that the ordinary woman who came to marry the Australian has been seen off and our teenager will soon be loosed upon the world.
And this is the way it goes, the stories are good to brilliant, full of black and sparkling humour. They work in part because we always want to know what it is the extraordinary inhabitants of Flattery’s world may be thinking. Their world is a challenging one, whose darker elements the reader might avoid by reading the stories for laughs – but Flattery doesn’t write for laughs alone. She has a few more irons in the fire.
In “Hump” we meet another young woman seriously divorced from reality, and who appears to be mentally ill. Maybe there is an explanation. Maybe it has something to do with her dead father, the man who regretted he didn’t talk more and who advises her to talk and who asks her did she ever care for anyone. The reader may clutch at these explanatory straws rather than decide she is just plain weird.
Yet these dysfunctional characters are strangely functional. They don’t stay in bed all day. The main character in “Hump” has a job and has an affair with her boss. She goes to restaurants, she flirts with waiters. Like all Flattery’s characters she doesn’t think highly of sex. When she goes to bed with her boss, he tries “one of his two and a half moves”. She prefers activities to people: night classes, visiting the sea, redecorating and thinking about her imaginary hump.
The thing that gives Flattery’s characters their strange force, their capacity to demand and get our attention, is their plausibility in their removal from standard human needs. With these needs stripped away or existing only at an opaque remove, other rarely glimpsed aspects of being human come into sharp focus. These women show us a truth of sorts. Most spend time with men in empty relationships. Some of these characters may be looking for something but if they are, their objectives are a mystery. It is certainly not the standard quest for love. One woman hears her husband whisper “I love you” while they lie together under crisp ironed sheets as she frets about cockroaches. “She blinked anxiously in the dark, as if trying to identify something. ‘Go easy on that stuff’ she advised him.”
In “Track” the female lead has taken up with a successful comedian in New York. As is the norm in Show Them a Good Time, she is unengaged. The wind just sort of blew her that way after her mental breakdown. As it happens, the comedian is not all that successful. His show is relegated to day-time TV. But he is “the boss”: it’s his money, his apartment, his friends, his fame. He is a needy fool, the type of character who doesn’t pan out in Flattery’s world.
…he felt moved to explain the different forms of comedy to me, working energetically through its history. At that moment, I have to say this- my chest grew extraordinarily tight and I felt it was very likely that I was going to die.
These are women who will not lap up third-rate passions.Their equanimity, independence and aplomb, render them stronger than those around them even when they seem broken and beyond hope.