- - Thursday, June 11, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ENGLAND AND OTHER STORIES

By Graham Swift

Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 256 pages

Volumes of short stories frequently share the title of one of the tales in the collection. Often the first story is dignified in this way, and often that’s because it announces a theme or topic that runs throughout the volume. In the case of Graham Swift’s “England and Other Stories,” the title story appears last. For orderly readers who begin at the beginning and go on until the end — and even for those who dip in and out of the book — it will therefore appear as a summing up rather than as an announcement.

It’s an odd story and its portentous (and by no means obvious), title draws attention to its oddity. The setting is Exmoor, a wild and lovely region on the rocky southwestern finger of England that stretches into the Atlantic. Here a coastguard on his way to work stops to help a driver who has run his car into a ditch. The driver is black — unusual in this part of rural Britain — and his accent shifts peculiarly from broad Yorkshire to Caribbean and occasionally into a kind of fake African.

He’s also a bit manic, maintaining a continuous line of chatter in his repertoire of voices. Ken, the coastguard, is at first bewildered but then finds himself laughing, so it’s perhaps not surprising, though unusual, to discover that the driver is a comedian on a tour that is taking him from his home in the northern city of Leeds through a lengthy series of one-night appearances in the small towns around England’s coast. As Ken drives on, he reflects “Could he, a man from Somerset, possibly go to Leeds (he had never been to Leeds, he’d only been twice to London) and with his West Country voice get up in front of an audience and make them laugh. His knees buckled at the thought of it.”

Soon he is reflecting on his work and how he looks out on the sea. “He knew what he knew about this land to which his back was largely turned but it was precious little really. He really knew, he thought, as he brought his car to a halt again, nothing about it at all.” These last lines of the story are the last lines of the book, and the reader’s mind flies back to the beginning and the epigraph from Tristram Shandy, “L–d! said my mother, what is all this story about?”

Mr. Swift’s stories are largely about men, the kind of men generally typified as ordinary, but like all of us, extraordinary to themselves — and sometimes even to others. Take the 56-year-old father pushing his daughter in a stroller: he sees a savage dog about to attack another child and instinctively but atypically tackles it ferociously and prevents a potential disaster. Walking home he decides not to tell his wife, but how to explain the claw marks and torn clothing? “He hadn’t the slightest idea.” Ken had also decided not to tell his wife about his encounter with the comedian. Indeed, these stories often capture the sheer privacy of lives, and suggest obliquely how little we know of others.

None of the stories is lengthy, yet perhaps their greatest strength comes from their richness of detail. Sometimes this focuses on setting, as in the evocation of Exmoor, but more often it is of a situation: two men on their morning break in “Tragedy, Tragedy,” or businessman Charlie Yates in “Going Up in the World” sitting in Greenwich Park looking at the tower blocks of London that have made him rich. Most importantly, Mr. Swift’s characters are located in time. They reflect on the childhoods, their girlfriends, their wives and children. Many remember advice from fathers, incidents from school or wartime.

Such intricate setting in time and place builds from story to story to create a picture of England, or perhaps rather the English. Like Ken and the comedian, they are disparate and varied. Some started poor and ended rich. Some are devoted to their spouses; others play around. They are usually good friends to each other. Most seem placid, but it would be unwise to think they are always so.

The social and economic history of the late-20th and 21st centuries is writ large in these stories. Indeed his sense of history has been a strength of Mr. Swift’s nine novels. Among these “Waterland” (1983) and the Booker Prize-winner “Last Orders” (1996) have been made into films. This latest book is only Mr. Swift’s third collection of short fiction. It is an affectionate, opinionated, sometimes funny, sometimes sad picture of England and its people.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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