In James Claffey’s collection, “Blood a Cold Blue,” Ireland is more a sensibility than a place. The book is a collection of short dense fictions, often just a page long, the length of a sin. They are sometimes more poem than story.
Some are set in the author’s native Ireland, but others wander to London, Brooklyn, Louisiana and New Mexico. But the narrator always brings himself.
To be Irish in these pages is to believe that trouble is the soul’s natural state, and to be fascinated with the textures of the world. To grow up Irish Catholic is to grow up with the feel of beads, the splash of holy water and the waft of incense. To grow up Irish Catholic is to see an image of a man being tortured to death on a cross in every third room, next to the cut flowers and coffee cups, and that can tip you toward the Gothic.
No wonder the objects in Claffey’s prose shine darkly. The book is filled with spiders and their webs, the grease of ten thousand fried breakfasts, toy Batmobiles, gardenia-scented body wash, snakes and peregrines, abandoned houses, post-apocalyptic basements, antique gramophones and remembered candy shops.
Through such close-ups and croppings, he explores the remembered past and the intensely observed now, the moments you can’t escape or forget: a sickly child in Ireland who wets his bed from terror, a dream where no one is where they are supposed to be, various nameless adult wanderers.
Stylistically, Claffey is swinging for the fences. You can feel in his prose the pungent realism of Joyce, the disturbing specificity of Kafka, the vivid sensory details of Rimbaud. But perhaps his closest affinity is with filmmaker David Lynch. These pieces are claustrophobic fantasies, dark but radiant, Gothic but not arch. The fantasies are not escapes, but intensifications. The spirits are substantial, the dreams consequential.
This makes for some wonderful writing: “The stranger’s face retaliates against the attempt to coerce it into recognition” evokes precisely that time when you stare for just a little too long at someone, futilely trying to place them. Or: “I saw mallards float by, their smug faces implacable, the impossibility of their capsizing.” Exactly.
“Blood a Cold Blue” is best read as if it were a book of poems — slowly, a few pages at a time. Besides compensating for the book’s lack of a traditional story, slow reading is the best way to appreciate the surprises packed into these artful almost-stories. They are small and weighted with the soul, like rosary beads.
Kevin Fenton is the author of a novel, “Merit Badges,” and a memoir, “Leaving Rollingstone.” He lives in St. Paul.