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Homeland Security

By John Dicker

Mothers and Sons

By Colm Tóibín Scribner, 270 pages, $24


A few stories in Colm Tóibín’s first collection are regrettably short. Better that they should be novels or films, or that newly anointed paragon of popular storytelling, the HBO series. That said, a few stories are absolutely brutal, like the final one about a father and son coping with the loss of their wife and mother to a freak snowstorm. The aftermath is enough to make one yearn for the comforts of something only mildly depressing, like a trip to a third-tier nursing home.

Mothers and Sons is a thoroughly unpretentious collection. It paints nu anced portraits of people dealing with a sprawling tapestry of crisis. Fans of flashy prose or experimental narratives might grow impatient with it, as the style is conventional by anyone’s standards. The title advertises an exploration of mother-and-son relationships, and while the implications might range from the flowery (think Hallmark commercial) to the freakish (think Norman Bates), it reads as more of a coincidence than a driving theme. A mother and a son are present in all nine stories, true, but their relationships often just hum in the background.

Tóibín is a writer who defies quick branding. His last novel, The Master, about Henry James, won a bookshelf full of awards. His fiction has been set in Spain, Ireland and South America. It’s worth mentioning that he’s gay but has never been pigeonholed in the gay-fiction ghetto. And he’s a gay Irish writer who, until his fourth novel, The Backwater Lightship, dealt with homosexuality in countries other than his native peat—a phenomenon similar to that of parents who feel some unwritten moral code requires them to cross a state line before performing the sex act.

The best pieces operate on several levels at once. Take “The Use of Reason,” the opening story about a Dublin criminal. The man is a natural-born thief, as disciplined as any Olympic gymnast. Yet he’s part of an underground society whose codes are severe. He’s done time in prison, killed people. During a job, however, he’s no brute: “He would rob more than two million pounds of jewelry, but he would give a man back his loose change.” The reader yearns to be in on the logistics of his heist, and to siphon off the sense of self he seems to possess—the lucidity required to size people up, be they informers or potential allies.

The thief grapples with how he might sell two Dutch paintings he recently boosted. His expertise is in jewelry; art is beyond his ken. Trusting two art dealers seems too risky. He lingers out of his element in a way he hasn’t for many years—even prison was less confounding. At the same time, his mother, a garrulous drunk, has been particularly loose with her tongue regarding his whereabouts. Figuring out what to do about her and the paintings conflate, as their source is vulnerability. It’s an emotion foreign and toxic to someone who has learned to snuff it out from a young age with no help from anyone.

In “The Name of the Game,” a widower in a small Irish town copes with an inheritance of debt. Her late husband came from a family presumed to be wealthy, though it’s simply not the case—their small grocery store is failing. So, she scrimps and borrows and opens a late-night fish-and-chips shop and, later, a liquor store (or “Off License,” as they’re known).

Tóibín nails the details of a small business, right down to the woman’s daughters who start bringing their clothes to the dry cleaner to free them from the stigma of cooking oil. After reading this Horatio Alger of fried potatoes, one can suddenly imagine how running a chip shop can be an act of feminist subversion.

The author never overplays his cards or declares his allegiances in a distracting way. The drama rises organically from situations that are inherently dramatic (a chance encounter between a long-estranged mother and son) and seemingly banal (a son forced to spend one last summer with a doting grandmother). Tóibín teases the drama out of the everyday while bringing the extraordinarily dramatic down to a scale that’s both easy to grasp and hard to avoid. He does this quietly.

Because Tóibín is so adept at nuance and detail, the shorter pieces feel abbreviated. We know he can take us in for a comprehensive tour of so many different worlds—that however poignant a short scene might be, it leaves us wanting a bit too much. But there are worse things a writer can do than leave a reader despondent, but yearning.


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