Tangled lives brought together bysmoking
Stuart Evers' excellent collection of stories revolves around the act of smoking and of people who are stranded in
unsatisfactory relationships, writes John Boland
Italo Svevo's great novel Confessions Of Zeno, which was published in 1923 and was championed by his tutor and friend James Joyce, is narrated by a man who vows to give up smoking but can't and so is constantly having his last cigarette.
In this he is like Mark Twain, who famously declared that "to cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did, and I ought to know because I've done it a thousand times".
Those of us who are still smokers - truly a dying breed - know the truth that lies behind Twain's jokey remark and can identify with Svevo's dithering and delusional hero, perhaps justifying our affection for his errant ways by summoning up all the romantic images associated with the inhalation of tobacco and by defiantly quoting Clement Freud's observation that "if you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving you don't live longer; it just seems longer".
Cigarettes are sublime, declared American academic Richard Klein in a witty and wise treatise of the same name - a treatise that he wrote partly as a means of giving up his addiction - and there's been other notable literature on the subject, not least this collection of stories by 34-year-old British journalist and former bookseller Stuart Evers.
Given my helpless predilection for smoking, I approached the book with a degree of fascination but also somewhat warily, concerned that the tobacco motif would prove to be little more than a gimmick - a worry exacerbated by the striking packaging, which is in the form of a large cigarette carton from which the paperback volume must be extricated.
I needn't have worried, though. This is the finest individual volume of stories I've read in a long time and one in which the act of smoking, far from being a conceit grafted artificially on to the various narratives, emerges as integral to the lives of the characters - most of them sad, lonely people stranded in unsatisfactory relationships, cast adrift by those they love or otherwise blighted in their dreams of fulfilment.
Yet such is Evers's insight into character, his expert shaping of storyline and his mastery of tone, that the overall effect is as bracing as it's poignant - and sometimes extremely funny, too. He's especially good on places.
A man in search of a hitherto unknown stepbrother finds himself in Benidorm, which "was like an entire suburban British town had got drunk, passed out and woken up on the Spanish coast". Another man agrees to an assignation with a former lover in Swindon, which "looked like a business park that had got out of hand".
Yet while there's much comedy in these stories, the underlying mood is of an intense sadness.
"Being in love can be a solitary business," the woman narrator of Eclipse reflects, "you can only get so close and no further."
She's convinced that her husband is having an affair with a young office colleague whom she regards with a degree of sympathy.
"His lover may have his heart and his mind and his constant thoughts but she will not have him. Not in the way that she wants and needs him. Not in the way that he wants and needs her. They can have their song and their grand passion but I will always be there, mother and wife both. Why should I not break his heart the way he has broken mine?"
There are echoes there of the dying falls that are so often to be found in William Trevor, while Evers himself has acknowledged John Cheever and Richard Yates as influences, but what's exhilarating about this debut collection is its own assurance, whether dealing with a damaged and vulnerable woman who visits her successful brother, a lover trying to accommodate himself to his volatile artist girlfriend or a man who becomes increasingly enamoured of an elusive East European woman who sells cigarettes on the street. And throughout the stories the act of smoking becomes a kind of commentary on the lives of these people, as alluring and evanescent and perilous as the situations in which they find themselves and the human aspirations from which they can't escape. An outstanding collection.