“When I left him, I felt a happy relief. I thought of night classes, the sea, redecorating.” So ends “Hump,” one story in this accomplished debut by Irish writer Nicole Flattery. Why the female narrator thinks of these three random things is never explained — but then such is the case in all of these strange and sometimes disconcerting tales which unfold within a familiar yet skewed reality. Anomalies abound, loose ends are seldom tied up, and clarity either comes late to the reader or not at all. It is up to us to adjust to the distorted perspective or simply go with Flattery’s flow.
As with most of the stories in “Show Them a Good Time,” “Hump” starts conventionally enough. The narrator discusses her father’s decline and her awkward attendance at his funeral. But instead of meditating on his life or exploring her grief, she introduces some puzzling revelations and descriptions. She worries she is turning into a hunchback. She outlines plans for her future: From now on she will be a “talker.” And she becomes romantically involved with her boss, who “looked like a small town I might live in and die.” When the boss summarizes the whole setup as “weird,” we find ourselves agreeing.
If these stories have a unifying trope, it is women’s relationships — or lopsided power struggles — with manipulative or overbearing men. In the finest tale, “Track,” we meet a woman who is treated badly by her famous comedian boyfriend. He calls her “an odd little ghost person” and avoids her company by listening to recordings of laughter, “the mirth of an old-time audience who meant it.”
In “Sweet Talk,” a 14-year-old Irish girl falls for the 30-something live-in workman her parents have employed. Despite moments of intimacy between the two, the man dashes her hopes by inviting his girlfriend to stay. “She was ancient,” this narrator scoffs. “She was twenty-four.”
Some women refuse to be constrained by men. “Not the End Yet” follows Angela on a series of dates, and although each one is farcical, and the backdrop apocalyptic, she is always in control. In “Abortion, a Love Story,” Natasha abandons her fling with her college professor to co-stage and co-star in a play penned by fellow messed-up student Lucy.
Just when we think we know where Flattery is going she disorients us by changing tack and veering off-course into surreal territory. Again and again we encounter bizarre, head-scratching turns. What exactly is the “dating equipment” that one man sells? Why does another man throw his beautifully tailored shirts out of a window? And what is in the dreaded “unemployment building” on Natasha’s campus?
Some of Flattery’s conceits seem odd for the sake of it. The longest story here grinds wearyingly on and its protagonists outstay their welcome. But the best tales blend personal pain and mordant wit, and are seductively offbeat and pleasingly on point.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Show Them a Good Time
By: Nicole Flattery.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 238 pages, $24.