That summer we lit fires. Terry and I.(Bonfire)
Although already a seasoned writer of short stories featured in literary journals and magazines, Pure Gold is John Patrick McHugh’s first published collection. The stories are all set on an imagined island off the west coast of Ireland. Referred to as ‘the Island’ throughout, this already gives it a slightly mythical or symbolic air; a place resonating with familiar elements of rural Ireland, yet where the narratives can unfold without boundaries.
The collection starts with a bang with ‘Bonfire’; from the first page, what strikes the reader is McHugh’s skilful use of language. There is a fluidity and playfulness in his sentences; a dynamic mix of rural dialect, from the coarse, colloquialisms of youth to familiar everyday expressions, interspersed with descriptive passages of sophisticated beauty.
We’d meet in the mornings, when oats still gummed my molars and the sky was beginning to shake itself blue.(Bonfire)
Each word seems so carefully chosen, and the sentences sound lovely, rolling off the tongue in such a pleasing way.
Then, bodies gunned over the handlebars of our bikes, we’d thunder on in pursuit of fires, the Island quaking from our shouts.
McHugh’s Island is populated by a diverse bunch of characters, with different stories and different inner struggles; from the boy in ‘Bonfire’ finding extreme outlets to help deal with the death of his mother, to the couple in ‘Hoarfrost’ who are about to take drastic measures to try to save their marriage, and the desperately unhappy man in ‘12 Pubs’ who tries to find some enjoyment in the company of old, troublesome friends. The unifying element is a cast of characters consumed by inner conflicts, which manifest themselves in exchanges filled with awkwardness, self-doubt and forced bravado. Having all the characters inhabit the same place, rather than each story taking place in different counties or even countries, creates a set context from which all the narratives spring.
Although there is consistency in McHugh’s writing style, he moves seamlessly between the voices of different characters. From the more raucous bravado of the boys in ‘Bonfire’ or ‘Pure Gold’, to the more temperate language of the midlife couple in ‘Hoarfrost’; from the more developed conversations and insightful monologues of the college-age kids in ‘Howya Horse’, to the youthful innocence of our young protagonist in ‘A Short Story’. The language, the tone of conversation, and the complexity of meanderings of the mind to which we are privy; they all shift and adapt according to the voices being channeled.
In most of the stories, as current events progress, we’re fed past events in tandem; this helps to expand our understanding of the characters, and how the past is influencing current events, but also serves to build tension towards the climax of the story. Short stories by their nature, rather than delivering a complex or epic narrative, offer up a brief but microscopic view into their characters’ lives and psyches.
On the surface, many of McHugh’s characters are not particularly likeable; they’re often engaged in exchanges where they are incredibly cruel to each other, putting others down to buoy themselves up, or where they delight in a friend’s misfortunes.
The pleasant glow of a friend’s mistake and moral failure.(A Short Story)
In a way, one of fiction’s draws and strengths is to present us with flawed and damaged characters, letting them loose in narratives that allow us to explore the more shameful sides of humanity in a safe space. Many of the characters put on facades, going along with things that they know are wrong, to feel a sense of belonging. Others get this same sense of belonging by gladly allowing themselves to be the butt of the joke, if it keeps everyone happy. A low sense of self-forth is what drives a lot of the characters to express the worst in themselves.
All night he would play the prop, no bother, if everyone continued to laugh and laugh and laugh.(12 Pubs)
Yet, in many of the characters, we also glimpse moments of vulnerability, sensitivity and remorse, which serve to peel back the outer grit and grime to expose their humanity. Within the chaos of masculine bravado, aggression and threats of violence lingering in the air, or the immature dynamics of young friendship, we do see moments of genuine affection, loyalty, and friendship, even if awkwardly expressed.
There is great strength in writing that doesn’t gloss over, or shy away from, moments that make us wince, facing the grit and clumsiness of humanity dead on; yet that does it in a way that seeks to understand, rather than sensationalise. Aren’t many of the flaws played out in these stories highly relatable after all?
The ends are often left open; short stories are meant to offer a brief but in-depth glimpse, rather than any neat conclusions. The closing pages of the collection serve to reinforce this; we don’t know where exactly the characters will end up once they are no longer in sight, we just understand them a bit more, and have possibly learned a bit about ourselves along the way.
This collection of stories is hugely enjoyable, entertaining and thought-provoking. Propelled along by pulsating language, there is a natural rhythm to the collection, where slower-paced stories offer some breathing room between the rip roaring escapades of the more tumultuous stories. There are stories that make us wince, stories that make us laugh, stories that make us want to look away, and stories that make us want to look closer (sometimes through closed fingers) at the protagonists’ mishaps. Many stories embody all these at once. I look forward to reading more by McHugh.
Pure Gold is available directly from publishers New Island, or by supporting your favourite local bookshop.