The Burning Ground by Adam O’Riordan
(Bloomsbury, 208 pages, hardback. Published today and available here in the Caught by the River shop.)
Review by Will Burns
There is a Jay Farrar song on his (obviously totally underrated) album Terroir Blues called California, which has the apparently throw-away, almost artless chorus in which Farrar repeats or slightly varies the phrase ‘It’s been written before but it’s worth repeating, no one could dream a place like California’. The dream of California, or the American West more broadly, is of course heady and addictive stuff – across a whole culture’s worth of films, paintings, literature, American ideas of the landscape, family, sport and nature are firm-set, even for people who have never seen the place first hand. But perhaps as a set of images it has grown a little flabby. I wonder if the forthcoming U.S. presidency and the mess that seems to suggest in the popular imagination might bring with it a period of re-evaluation when it comes to the British relationship with much Americana, that has felt, for so long, like a comfortable and communal set of myths and motifs. We needn’t dwell too much on the state of current attitudes to immigration here. But Adam O’Riordan’s debut collection of short stories does give rise to such thought – how European-ness (or British-ness, more accurately) travels and how a foreign eye understands at a kind of slant what might seem colloquial, or even quintessential elsewhere – especially if that elsewhere wields the kind of soft power of America, and the ‘foreign-ness’ is of the specific type that our ‘special relationship’ with America helps create.
While there is more than a faint tang of James Salter in these stories, specifically in the type of person characterised – artists, editors, gallery owners, actors (to say nothing of the kind of clear-cut sentences and quiet craft that the book is made out of) there is much more than just classic American formal play going on here. What’s really happening is the making new of this landscape, this type of person and their social interactions, through the gaze of the foreign. Across a whole book it’s a clever device and handled with a deftness that works to give every observation, no matter how apparently thrown-off, a kind of secret critical heft. As in the very first story, where we are told about what exactly it might be that has the British protagonist Harvey hooked on an impractical pan-continental affair. It’s not the ‘strolls along Venice boardwalk’ or, more pointedly, the ‘other-worldly models teetering unsteady as foals in their high heels, their big, under-water eyes expressing a desire to act’, it’s the physical act of flying itself that Harvey suggests he is addicted to. The one real act he describes un-mediated by his sense of uncertainty or his sense of displacement, is the locus of his becoming displaced, the process through which he moves from one geographical sphere to another. As a first story it sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the collection, where various permutations of this dynamic play out – sometimes it is only the author we know to be the ‘other’ presence in the story, and yet there remains this sense of the strange that is so compelling and fresh.
And it is almost the whole range of Great American Images that O’Riordan has in his sights – in the story called Black Bear in the Snow, a father wants to take his son, who no longer lives with him but with his mother and her new partner, hunting as his own father did. On the trip however, the father, Randall, is out of his element. He hasn’t got the hunting experience he tells an instructor he has, he falls out with his son through one ill-judged look, and throughout the story he is nervous and uneasy. His conversation is tentative. At one point he is talking about the idea of flying a plane, ‘ “They don’t let just anyone take the controls,” Randall stopped himself as he found his enthusiasm for the subject overrunning his knowledge of it.’ In our age of expert-rejection, who, O’Riordan might be asking us, is letting ‘just anyone’ take control of what?
In the penultimate story, the once again displaced English narrator begins by describing his car – the titular ‘98 Mercury Sable. However, over the course of his first few sentences we learn that in fact, this is a man entirely unconfident in handling this mechanical emblem of his adopted country. His driving test failures ‘back home’ are listed and we come to see the motif of the vehicle as problematic, rather than a gift or signifier of freedom. It’s a necessity of parenthood in fact, which comes to mean another kind of freedom lost, or impinged upon, and eventually suffers a kind of reversal as the story exerts its own pressure on our notions of adult-child interactions.
Yes, these tropes have moved through time, from a period when knowledge of the outdoors and field sports and cars might have been considered innate, but they have also moved across space with the same disorienting results, from the American West to a cackhanded, suburban Britain and back again. And it is this way of seeing that is the engine of the book.
Perhaps we come again to the idea of a literary terroir – these stories have the character of American stories yes, but also present is this subtle otherness, which lifts them way beyond parody and makes them essentially current. O’Riordan has written a book that stands artistically in line with the likes of The Rolling Stones’ country songs, or Hockney’s L.A. paintings – something both familiar and made (well-made, at that) alien. In the middle of an English winter and looking disconsolately at the environmental, political and social state of America, it really does seem rather impossible to dream a place like California.
The Burning Ground is available in the Caught by the River shop, priced £16.99.