I remember, it could be as long as twenty years ago (in the way that most things seem now to have happened twenty years ago unless they were the day before yesterday) I was meeting a group of other writers for lunch somewhere in Soho – Sarah Dunant would have been there, Frances Fyfield, Lisa Coda – is that possible?- , Michael Dibdin maybe, Mike Lewin? – and bursting in, excited over the book I’d just been reading, but annoyed also, because it’s opening chapter, opening paragraph were so damned good that after reading them I’d sent the first pages of the novel that I’d started writing caterwauling down into the trash. Not good enough.
That book was Voices in the Dark by Andrew Coburn.
Formerly a journalist, Coburn has written a dozen novels, one of which – Goldilocks – was nominated for an Edgar, and three of which have been made into movies (all, I think, in France). His work has been translated into fourteen languages and it may just be that he is one of those writers who are more honoured outside their own country’s borders than at home. Which, if it were the case, would be a shame. And US readers’ loss.
When I was compiling stories for a anthology called Men From Boys, Coburn came up with, not a short story, but a novella, My Father’s Daughter, which begins thus …
Hank West, womaniser, inveterate gambler and father of two, died as he had lived. On the edge. A razor passed so smoothly across his throat that he had no idea he’d been murdered.
Now Stark House Press have published Spouses & Other Crimes, a collection of Coburn’s short fiction, eleven stories ranging from early work in Transatlantic Review to the present. These are not crime stories, not in the usually accepted understanding of the term, though, here and there, crimes may occur; these are stories about mainly small-town characters leading – or leaving – small-town lives. These are stories to be set alongside those of American writers like Mona Simpson or Lorrie Moore. In language that is at once precise yet tricky, Coburn can give you two characters’ lives in a half-heard conversation in a diner forty minutes off closing. He can lead you on to solid ground and then, just when you think you know where things are heading, pull the floor out from beneath you in a single sentence and send you spinning.
There’s a wonderful humour to a story like “A Woolf in Vita’s Clothing” (with that title, there’d have to be); a nicely critical astringency behind the manoeuvrings, financial and social, at play in “George W. Bush”. Both stories feature female protagonists out to improve on the hand life has dealt them. This is the opening paragraph of “A Woolf in Vita’s Clothing.”
Ten years ago a man named Benson married her and took her to North Dakota, where gigantic skies diminished her, winds haunted her, and winters oppressed her. Her only means of escape was a Greyhound bus. People on the town called it “riding the dog”. She rode the dog to Chicago, arriving with forty-four dollars in her bag, which was a weight because much of it was in coin.
“Jocelyn”, another story with a female protagonist, and, at this particular moment, my favourite in the collection, gives you the whole of one woman’s life, from the age of eleven, when she leads two boys, running naked, through the grounds of Kenwood Academy, into middle-age, in just glorious 15 pages.
As the author and noir expert, Woody Haut says of the stories in his recent review in the Los Angeles Review of Books …
The stories that comprise “Spouses & Other Crimes” are acerbic and creepy, with envy, anxiety, and voyeurism the order of the day. Imbued with an undercurrent of class antagonism, Coburn populates his short tales with damaged and obsessed individuals who desire what they can or can’t have, and, in doing so, are fated to suffer the insufferable.
If you’re at all interested in reading further, please do check out Haut’s fine piece, in which, as well as giving details of Coburn’s background and setting his work in context, he talks about the stories themselves in detail. You can find it here …