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Medals and Prizes: Deftly crafted stories filled with dark comedy

Book review: Metcalf is an accessible writer whose engaging collection spans a life’s work

Medals and Prizes
Author: John Metcalf
ISBN-13: 9781911508960
Publisher: And Other Stories
Guideline Price: £11.99

“After the ham and Ambrosia Creamed Rice, he’d walked the neighbourhood – dark factories across the canal, bomb-sites, news agents, fish and chips, Primitive Methodist Church, barber, The Adora Grill – and had ended up in the Leighton Arms where in deepening depression he drank five pints of the stuff manufactured opposite his room, an independent product called George’s Glucose Stout.”

From dingy student digs in postwar England to the jaded tourist landscapes of Italy to the stultifying atmosphere of Canada’s literary elite, one of John Metcalf’s many skills is to render the backdrops of his short stories with bright, original detail.

The wide scope of Medals and Prizes, which contains seven stories and the titular novella, reflects the author's background. Metcalf was born in Carlisle, England in 1938 and emigrated to Canada in 1962, where he became a noted writer and editor, a champion of the short-story form.

Metcalf has written more than a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction, including Adult Entertainment, which was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book. Although he has been lauded in Canada – praised by Alice Munro no less – this is his first UK publication.

Spanning more than 50 years and ranging from his earliest published stories to the acclaimed late-career Medals and Prizes, the collection introduces a British and Irish readership to a writer of deftly crafted, painfully human stories full of the dark comedy of everyday life.

There are shades of Kingsley Amis, Saul Bellow and Evelyn Waugh, the latter name-checked in this collection. Metcalf is a fan of intertextuality with lines from Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain also appearing.

Influence

This is a writer heavily influenced by the great male writers who have come before him, a fact that is underlined in the title story when the central character Rob goes to university in Bristol and gives a lengthy list of the male writers and poets that he’s discovering.

But this is undoubtedly indicative of the postwar era of the novella, which is expertly evoked by Metcalf. The story hinges on a formative relationship between Rob and an early childhood friend, Jimbo. As they grow up together, their tastes are defined by each other’s learnings.

These are not your average 14-year-old boys, rather teenagers who read Huysmans, scour junk shops, stockpile Skira art books and devour Faber & Faber monographs. Although their lives part ways at university – Jimbo goes to Oxford – Rob will be influenced by the friendship for the rest of his days. Metcalf shows us this in a dynamic piece that lurches through the ages under his stylish hand, resulting in a virtuosic piece of writing that gets to the heart of human existence.

In this story and others – The Nipples of Venus, Cezar Salad, Keys and Watercress – Metcalf packs in an amount of cultural knowledge. The collection is as informative as it is entertaining. He writes particularly well on music, art and food. His attention to the latter can be seen in title choices but also in the line-by-line descriptions. In the atmospheric opening story with its Withnail & I overtones, a grimy student digs comes alive in the details: “Even the air seemed brown . . . The slice of ham had an iridescent quality, hints of green and mauve.”

Grim humour

The grim humour in this story is in evidence throughout the collection. In the closing story, Keys and Watercress, an elderly man persuades a young boy, David, to accompany him home for a visit. Metcalf doesn’t bring the story to its darkest narrative conclusion but there is enough creepiness, in a League of Gentlemen way, to set the reader on edge:

“‘This bullet,’ said the old man, ‘was cut out of my leg in 1899. December 1899. Next I suppose you’ll tell me that you’ve never heard of the Boer War!’ David said nothing, and the old man’s black shape loomed over him. ‘Have you heard of the Boer War?’ David began to cry.”

Metcalf is an accessible literary writer whose elegant prose comes with a penchant for a twist in the tale. Stories such as The Nipples of Venus (guess which pasta shape this refers to) and The Children Green and Golden give surprise endings to familiar scenarios.

Most surprising of all is that Metcalf is a writer ahead of his time. Take the brutally funny, borderline-grotesque Girl in Gingham in which a divorcee in his mid-30s mourns his marriage in Canada after his wife leaves him for another man. He attends a string of sorrowful dinners with friends who ultimately offload him on to a computer dating programme. The results of this “CompuMate” dating are told in hilarious, surreal vignettes that make the exploits of Tinder seem benign in comparison: “My Drex did this, my Drex did that, she says. It stands for Dreadful Ex.”

In Medals and Prizes, these old stories have a delightfully modern feel.