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Mothers and Sons

Because I didn't know who he was until just a few years ago, I think of Colm Tóibín as a young man. But he's already fifty. He's widely known as a gay writer. But in his new collection of stories, Mothers and Sons (Scribner, 2007), homosexual encounters figure in only two of nine stories. Colm Tóibín is just a writer who happens, in his private life, to be gay.

A century from now, we will have made up our minds. Same-sex carnality will be either as unremarkable as any other kind, or it will be so utterly verboten, after a term of open experimentation, that nobody will so much as imagine it. I plump for the former outcome, but I don't take it for granted. The experimentation that I refer to is not that of people seeking erotic satisfaction. The experiment that we're all in the middle of at the moment, in the United States, has another objective. Can men live with their own and others' unpredictable desires?

What I learned from Mothers and Sons is to regard all desire, and not just the sexual, as equally importunate. Mr Tóibín understands a great lesson of Holy Mother Church: desire is distancing. To want something is, perversely, to put it in a frame, to push it away, to place it just at the edge of reach and no closer. In the language of desire, we do not want the things that we already have.

It was the third story in the collection, "The Name of the Game," that woke me up. The first story, "The Use of Reason," repelled me, as a story if not as art, because of its psychopathically cold protagonist. The second, "A Song," had a fragmentary feel, as though it had been taken from a longer, more satisfying story - about which the possibilities were simply too many. In "The Name of the Game," a middle-aged mother named Nancy salvages the financial wreck that her husband leaves her stuck with. That George killed himself is revealed in a detail that tells precisely because it is so small. It comes in a passage about Nancy's nighttime chats with her daughters.

But there were two things now which she never discussed with them in these short nightly talks. They never mentioned George or how he had died; and she never told them that she had stopped making payments to the bank and was paying only to the suppliers she thought were essential, and that she was hoarding whatever cash she gathered in the bottom drawer of the chest in her bedroom under the good sheets.

"or how he had died" is, in the context, perfectly transparent, but it is also beyond speech. Nancy does not want to be the widow of a suicide.

What Nancy does want, and what the story suggests she attains, is a quiet suburban life, outside of Dublin, where she can enjoy life with neighbors who didn't grow up with her and who know little or nothing about her. One of Mr Tóibín's more remarkable achievements is the quiet endowment of Nancy with a hatred of the nakedness of small-town life. Getting out of the small Irish city in which she has lived her life is, in fact, her one desire. No sexual longing could be stronger. Perhaps Mr Tóibín understands that men, at least, like to talk up their sexual itches because to do so makes them out to be potent, or at least potently afflicted. In fact, we are equally tormented by far more prosaic longings. Another writer might have given us a Nancy whom we could conveniently dismiss as grubbily greedy, like Trina in Greed. Mr Tóibín makes us root for her, even as we sense that she is undermining her son.

The last story, "A Long Winter," set in Catalonia in the early Fifties, is one of the two stories with homosexual encounters. Here it is - the encounter, I mean:

As Miquel's father spoke and the policeman took notes, the younger policeman leaned against the wall, just inside the door of the kitchen, pushed his hat back on his head so Miquel was able to see his clear, unwrinkled forehead and his large dark eyes. As these eyes examined the room, seeming to concentrate briefly on the scene between the two older men, they locked with Miquel's eyes. Miquel was aware that he had been staring at the younger man since he came into the room and it would be better now if he looked away, let whatever had happened dissolve in a moment of unconcealed curiosity and nothing more. But he did not look away. He took in the young policeman's face in the shadowy light of the kitchen, the full redness of his lips, the square, hard stubbornness of his jaw and chin and then the softness of his eyes, the eyelashes like a girl's. The young policeman, in turn, watched only Miquel's eyes, his gaze cold, expressionless, as though he were sullenly blaming him for something. When Miquel looked down at the policeman's crotch, he too glanced down at himself and briefly smiles, opening his lips, before resuming his former expression, but more intense now, almost feral, staking out an object within his grasp.

That's formidable, but that's it. The story has not even reached its midpoint. What Mr Tóibín has created here is a world in which "homosexuality" simply doesn't exist. Even the desire never progresses beyond a glance at a crotch. Stendhal observed that people wouldn't fall in love if they hadn't read about it, and today's christianists seem to be of the same opinion. It's ironic that Colm Tóibín gives their position such immense credibility. The story ends on a note that in which only an obsessive would detect a consciously sexual note.

Miquel leaned backward toward Manolo, seeking the warmth of him, looking for some grim comfort as the next shot rang out. Manolo held him hard to make sure that he did not move any closer to the dying bird and the carcass, half-torn asunder now, no use to anyone.

Most short story collections take their titles from the most prominent story in the group, but Mothers and Sons states a motif that the stories share, in wildly different ways. "The Name of the Game" is more concerned with the mother than with the son, but "Three Friends" begins with the mother's funeral and proceeds to a seaside rave party. In "Famous Blue Raincoat," a middle-aged mother is obliged to reflect on the rock band in which she and her sister were briefly famous when her teenaged son discovers her LPs and burns CD copies for friends. "A Priest in the Family," the title of which, an endnote tells us, quotes an Irish proverb about respectability, is about the terrible bruise that a wayward son has inflicted on his mother's respectability, and her bold determination to let it heal in the public glare. In "A Summer Job," a mother eventually discovers that she has profoundly misunderstood her son since his earliest childhood.

But relations between mothers and sons is a motif in this collection, not a theme. If there is a theme that all or most of the stories share, its the complexity and ambivalence of the characters' emotional outlook, or what a simpleton might call their "attitude." Lisa, the mother in "Famous Blue Raincoat," is surprised that her son doesn't stop to think that her dead sister's voice "might not carry too much sadness with it, too much regret to be listened to casually after all these years."

Luke was all competence and pride as he set up the disc in the player. "I put the best track first," he said, "and I had space at the end so I put it on a second time."

She knew what it would be, and, as Julie's voice sang the opening verse of "Famous Blue Raincoat" wth no ornamentation or instrumental accompaniment, Lisa saw her face that day when she was dead, the features filled with life, ready to start an argument, enjoying her own lovely authority. Soon, when the echo effect was added and the cello came in and Lisa's own voice came in, she was glad she had spent the years not hearing this music. Of all the songs on the CD this was the only one which still seemed alive, the rest were relics, but the song which began and ended the disc gave her a hint, in case she needed on, of her own reduced self, like one of her negatives upstairs, all outline and shadow, nd gave her a clear vision of her sister's face in the days when the recording was made. Now, as the CD came to an end, she hoped she would never have to listen to it again.

There is great melancholy in the composition of this story, as the story of how the band formed, enjoyed a bit of sunshine, and then broke up is told intermittently, in a voice so wary and unexcited that the exuberance of being young, successful musicians is almost entirely blotted out. Lisa recalls it now as she might recall a bad experience with drugs, conscious of a dangerous allure that brought no joy. Everything suggests that Lisa now leads a satisfying, even happy life, but we don't envy her once we've measured the shadow cast by the days of her youth.

One of the two very short stories, "A Journey," is the one that I found the saddest. Mary, a woman in her sixties, is driving David, her twenty year-old son, across Ireland in the dark; for the past seven months, David has been in a hospital, suffering "from silence, as she called it; the doctors called it depression." He insists on sitting in the back seat and he refuses to talk to his mother except in curt dismissals. Waiting at home is Mary's ailing husband, Seamus, who can only think to ask, when she returns, about David.

She did not answer but walked over and sat on a stool in front of the dressing-table mirror from where she could see him. She noticed how strange her well-kept blond hair look beside the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Her crocks, David used to call them. It was time, she thought, to let the gray appear. Seamus was staring at her from the bed and when their eyes caught she was struck for a moment by a glimpse of a future in which she would need to muster ever ounce of selfishness she had. She shut her eyes before she turned around to face him.

Even the happiest story, "Three Friends," is infused with disappointment. Home alone after the all-night rave, unhappily lucid after a night of drink and drugs, Fergus spends a dark hour before a welcome visitor shows up at his door.

His small house, when he came in the door, seemed to have been hollowed out from something, the air inside it felt trapped, specially filtered to a sort of thinness. The sun was shining through the front window so he went immediately to close the curtains, creating the pretense that it was still the early morning. He thought of putting music on the CD player, but no music would please him now, just as alcohol would not help and sleep would not come. He felt that he could walk a hundred miles if he had somewhere to go, some clear destination. He was afraid of nothing save that this feeling would never fade. His heart was beating in immense dissatisfaction at how life was; the echo of the music in his ears and the aftershine of the flashing lights in his eyes were still with him. He felt as though he had been brushed by the wings of some sharp knowledge, some exquisite and mysterious emotion almost equal to the events of the past week. He lay on the sofa, dazed and beaten by his failure to grasp what had been offered to him, and fell into a stupor rather than a sleep.

Surely the deflation that follows elation has never been capture with more eloquent pathos.

Mothers and Sons rewards patient reading, by which I mean to caution you against reading more than one story at a time. Make the collection last for nine days at least, and let every story's impact settle in your mind before taking on the next one. Mr Tóibín shows himself here to be a short story writer of Alice Munro's character, and I look forward to his next collection. Even more than that, though, I look forward to re-reading this one. (January 2007)

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