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Saturday, March 12th, 2005


New and Collected Stories of Alan Sillitoe

by Alan Sillitoe

A review by Gerry Donaghy

At the beginning of his short story "The Fishing-Boat Picture," Alan Sillitoe writes: "I'd rather not make what I'm writing look foolish by using dictionary words." Such proletarian wisdom is the hallmark of this criminally overlooked British writer. In the recently published collection New and Collected Stories, the highlights of a forty-year career as a published writer are presented in a single volume, allowing readers to become quickly acquainted with this poet laureate of the working class.

Sillitoe's characters tend to oscillate between two archetypes: the angry young man lashing out at the world around him, and the working stiff who finds fleeting moments of happiness in the lowest of places; not because he's capable of romanticizing them, but because they're all that are available to him. These two figures are united in the small comforts that life presents them, whether it's the touch of a woman, the loyalty of friendship, or the pints of lager on a Saturday night that help to obliterate their soul-crushing workaday routines. These aren't stories of extraordinary situations, rather, they detail the struggles and joys that are met with more dignity by their working class subjects than the upper classes would ever credit them with.

New and Collected Stories is the cream of Sillitoe's writing, beginning with what is probably his most famous story "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," (which was adapted into a popular film in 1962), about a young reform school inmate on a cross-country race and his internal dialogue on his reasons for running and his ideas of what victory really entails. This is the distilled essence of the angry post-war youth before rock 'n' roll provided a popular and communal release. As the stories progress, the characters grow older and wiser, but no better equipped to escape the desperate environments that surround them -- as he writes in the story "The Mimic," describing an encounter with a dog that is about to be euthanized:

I stared at those brown eyes, at that fat half-blind face that could never have a say in how the world was run, and between one snap of chocolate and the next, I'd borrow its expression, take on that look, and show it to the puppy to let him feel that he was not alone.

What makes Sillitoe's writing crackle with life is the utter lack of pretense and sentimentality. This isn't a writer out to dazzle the reader with literary parlor tricks or stylistic pyrotechnics. Rather, Sillitoe uses the vernacular of the working class to express universal ideas of internal dislocation and bewilderment. It's as if Dostoyevsky's longing for connection was spliced with Hemingway's economy of language.

For readers who have gorged themselves on the latest trends in short stories, it's time to read the work of a master of the form. New and Collected Stories performs the amazing task of making the medium vibrant again by presenting stories that resonate through the decades of their existence with themes and meanings that are timeless.

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