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The Pier Falls: And Other Stories


The Pier Falls: And Other Stories

For the breadth of its inventiveness, the cool precision of its language and the sheer skill of its storytelling, English writer Mark Haddon's first collection of short stories, THE PIER FALLS, is nothing short of astonishing. Perhaps that's not surprising coming from the author of the wildly imaginative 2003 novel, THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, narrated in the voice of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome.

But what is surprising is Haddon's confession, in an April 2016 essay for The Guardian, that he's been "trying to write short stories for a long time, failing, throwing them away, trying again, failing, throwing them away." The nine distinctive stories that compose this volume --- transporting the reader from contemporary England to ancient Greece to outer space and evoking legitimate comparisons to the work of writers like Joseph Conrad, Stephen King and George Saunders --- reveal that none of Haddon's effort was wasted.

The title story literally opens the collection with a bang. It's a chilling, almost moment-by-moment journalistic-style account of the collapse of a pier at a British seaside resort in July 1970, resulting in dozens of deaths. Three rivets fail, and soon there's "a hole punched into the familiar view," with disastrous consequences, as Haddon reminds us how quickly an unremarkable day can turn tragic.

"For the breadth of its inventiveness, the cool precision of its language and the sheer skill of its storytelling, English writer Mark Haddon's first collection of short stories, THE PIER FALLS, is nothing short of astonishing."

"The Pier Falls" reveals Haddon's penchant for descriptions of characters in extremis. That's also demonstrated in "The Island," the story of a Greek princess who's left alone by her abductor to die on a barren island, the victim of a life in which "wealth has deprived her of the one skill that she needs now." "The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear" is a Conradian tale about a group of young British men who embark on a mission to rescue a previous expedition's members lost in a jungle that’s reportedly haunted by a monster that's "part man, part bear, part lizard, rotted meat between the yellow teeth, eyes like orange marbles, lice swimming in its fur."

The most dramatic story in this vein is "The Woodpecker and the Wolf," another portrayal of a rescue effort, but this time set in deep space. The story can't help bring to mind Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" or Matt Damon in "The Martian," but this account of the increasingly desperate plight of Clare Hogg and her fellow astronauts and the attempt to bring them back to Earth is every bit as tense and thrilling as the ones in those films.

When it comes to more naturalistic fiction, Haddon also demonstrates his impressive skill. In the O. Henry Prize-winning story "The Gun," two bored adolescent boys living in a British housing estate steal a weapon from one's older brother and experience a day that's "not simply shocking but one of those moments when time itself seems to fork and fracture and you look back and realise that if things had happened only slightly differently you would be leading one of those other ghost lives speeding away into the dark."

"The Weir," published in The New Yorker, is the story of Ian, a man who has been abandoned by his wife and son, and rescues a young woman named Kelly from a suicide attempt in the Thames River near Oxford, an exemplar of how "lives are held in common, that we lose a little something of ourselves with every death." That same spirit of empathy characterizes "Bunny," the tragic story of a man who weighs more than 500 pounds, rescued in an unpredictable way by a woman who's an equally damaged soul.

The book’s longest (almost novella-length) story and the one that best embodies all of Haddon's myriad gifts is "Wodwo." (The title comes from a Ted Hughes poem about the "wild man" character of European myth.) In it, Gavin Cooper, a BBC documentarian, and his family encounter a "tall black man in a black woolly hat, sporting a big salt-and-pepper beard and wearing a long black coat over camouflage trousers and big black boots" on a snowy Christmas Eve in rural England. The shocking events of that evening start the egotistical Gavin on a downward spiral worthy of the Book of Job.

"I have read too many beige short stories in my life, too many short stories that feel like five-finger exercises," Haddon wrote in concluding The Guardian essay. "There are limits to what can happen in the real world. In fiction there are no limits: anything is possible on paper. It seems to me that if you are writing a short story and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop." With the breathtaking talent that courses through every one of these stories, don't look for Mark Haddon to be opening that cycle repair shop any time soon.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 27, 2016

The Pier Falls: And Other Stories
by Mark Haddon

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101970138
  • ISBN-13: 9781101970133