A friend of mine has a habit, when he comes across a new short story, of immediately abandoning it if he comes across the words “my father” within the first couple paragraphs. Lately this has become the literary equivalent of the White House’s black pen on CIA reports. As a generation, we’re apparently either haunted by our parents—mother and father alike—or just plain out of ideas. We want to matter, maybe, and because we’re afraid of money we choose blood.
But in Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons (Scribner, 289 pages, $14), a collection of stories built around you-know-what, one has the sense that the filial bond is more theme for improvisation than resort or obsession, a complicated dance between familial antipodes. Sometimes the mother is dead, sometimes missing, sometimes a near-famous singer; sometimes the son is a priest who teaches his altar boys altogether the wrong sacraments.
Still, the stories don’t necessarily hinge on their binding element. Sometimes, even, the belatedness or submersion of a mother or son leads to an odd kind of thematic suspense. In “The Use of Reason,” one of the strongest in the collection, a mother appropriates the tough reputation of her criminal son. However, this is not the crux of the action but rather an unlikely spur in an intricate character study that also includes the son’s theft of a Rembrandt and a pair of sadistic, masturbating Fathers.
Tóibín is best known for his novels—in particular his reimagination in The Master of Henry James at his most humiliated—but while those were propelled by intensities of exploration rooted in their subjects, the author here often seems to be chasing what Yeats once said he looked for at the end of every poem: the click of a well-made box. In these always fine stories, it is possible to see Tóibín busy at work cutting bolts, polishing, cinching to level, to bring each piece to its pitch-perfect close. The wizard, that is to say, is visible behind the screen.
These stories are not, however, a wizardry easily performed. Most magicians carefully guard their secrets because their tricks are cheap and repeatable, but in Tóibín’s case watching him work merely reveals his estimable skills as a writer. Tóibín is assured and unshowy, his sentences unfiligreed, emotion revealed only in its particulars. His pieces retain a density and force that remain only implied until their late release. For example in the “Famous Blue Raincoat,” in which a son’s proud discovery of his mother’s folk-singer past brings back only the death of a sister and the mother’s unwanted vision of “her own reduced self, like one of her negatives upstairs, all outline and shadow.”
Then, quickly, quickly, the well-made box clicks shut.
READ IT: Colm Tóibín reads from Mothers and Sons on Thursday, Jan. 10, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm. Free.