The stories in James Claffey’s Blood a Cold Blue are very short–most less than two pages long. A few are just a paragraph; some composed of a single, winding sentence. Each is a separate, fully realized morsel, and each is better than the last. It’s hard to know where to pause for breath, but read them all at once and you run the risk of rushing past the luscious, inspired sentences and riveting imagery.
Many of the stories take place in Claffey’s native Ireland. Others are set in his adopted home of California, or somewhere very much like it. In the U.S., Elvis’s voice screeches from the radio and summer is “rippled and barbaric.” The American stories have a bright, grotesque edge to them, distinct from the shimmering, surreal wonder of the Irish world that Claffey has “known and forgotten now, all this life-long later.” His writing feels deeply autobiographical, and his narrators’ voices ring with a hard-earned history. These are stories to savor and devour.
Claffey’s lilting, circuitous prose blends an almost conversational tone with a Joycean attention to the malleable beauty of the written word. In “Ireland in Four Acts,” he writes of “a cabin in Sligo, brass tub, the shining carapace of an old typewriter.” A nameless writer will sit there and “vote for meaning, tap the ampersand.” Claffey himself is in the business of “voting for meaning,” of describing the joy and horror of life’s bruised and bristling underbelly. –Emma Page, bookseller at Wellesley Books
Discover: A compelling, at times unsettling short story collection combining Irish and American literary sensibilities.
Originally published in The View from Here::
The day the Bird died, Máire was hanging wet laundry on the washing line in the far meadow. A soft wind billowed the bed sheets, and grayed, lacy bloomers swayed romantically, having seen better days. Olivia, her neighbor from across the road, made her way down the narrow path, waving her hands in the air, making sure to avoid the nettles on either side.
“The Bird is dead, isn’t he,” Máire said.
“How did you know?” Olivia said, pulling the collar of her coat tight.
“Didn’t a crow fly into the upstairs bedroom last night at dusk.” She spoke through a mouthful of clothespins, the words splintered, her tightly curled hair not moving in the breeze.
He was the first man to touch her that way. His breath beery, his hands warm, the show-band playing a slow song, the bandleader combing his brilliantine hair with a plastic comb, lisping the words onto the dance-hall air. Later, in the back of the Bird’s ’38 Ford he slipped his two ferret hands up her skirt and took what he wanted. The next month she married the bugger who owned the bar and the Bird drank down the road at Hourican’s for a long while. When he finally returned to his familiar seat he could see the swell of her belly under the apron. A lucky man, the bar owner, the Bird thought, regretting his inaction at the wedding mass and how when the priest had asked if any man present…
Three colorful bantam hens pecked in the dirt in the narrow space behind the public house. One had the bright, sharp eyes of a born killer. The Bird weighed the coins in his pocket, doing the math as to how much it would cost to purchase the creature.
“I’ll give you two sovereigns for the bantam with the bright eyes,” he said to the man behind the bar.
“I can’t sell you that bird. It’s the lad’s pet. His mother would have my guts if I sold the child’s pet for fighting.”
“Are you going to let a woman tell you what you can or cannot do in your own house?” the Bird said, his left eyebrow raised.
“It’s easy to see you’re a bachelor. If you had a wife of your own you’d be singing a different tune.”
The Bird grunted, tipped the glass and emptied the porter in one go. “You’re a foolish man to turn down two sovereigns,” he said, tipping his brim and heading for the door.
The doctor placed the tiny baby in its mother’s arms. Sure, it didn’t weigh more than a bag of flour, as fragile and ugly as a new-born bird.
When the bar owner saw the little mite in his wife’s arms, the sharp beak of a nose, the dark eyes, the curl of matted hair, he recognized a family likeness not of his own.
“He’s like a wee bird,” he told her.
“Yes, but he’s our little bird,” the mother said, squeezing her husband’s hand.
He was not so sure. Not so sure at all.
The bantams went wild when the creature slipped in the shed door. Feathers and shit flew everywhere, and the fox, if it were a fox, grabbed one by the neck and blooded it out. All that remained of the three birds was the pile of feathers on the ground, the blood splattered all over the floor. A desperate thing, the Bird agreed with the bar owner as he told him about the brazen fox that had savaged the child’s pets. The Bird fingered his winnings and thought about buying the man’s lad a rabbit instead.
In the line at the shop the lad held his mother’s hand and rubbed the back of his leg with the toe of his shoe. From behind, the Bird recognized the shape of the earlobes and his heart tightened.
“How’s the Bird?” Mrs. Flavin asked from the counter.
He reddened, coughed, muttered, “Game ball, game ball.”
The mother turned around and gave him a look that spoke volumes in its silence.
“How’s the lad, Mairé?” he asked.
She put the Woman’s Weekly and the boy’s lucky bag on the counter and banged down her coins.
Published in Redactions::
When a relative dies we burn a candle in the window and draw the blinds halfway down so the house looks like it’s napping.
“The Bird is dead.” That’s what the Old Man says when he reads he obituaries in the back of the paper today. Mam nods and the kitchen is silent for a long time. The clamor of a trapped mouse changes that and the Old Man raises the rolled-up Irish Press over the creature, all furred and tense in the trap. The mouse makes frantic and the Old Man brings the paper down on the trap with a thump. A trail of yellowish red trickles from its body, and Mam shakes her head and goes to get the brush and pan to clean the floor.
“Who’s the Bird?” I ask.
Mam ignores me, pouring Dettol antiseptic on the sticky mess, wiping the guts up with a J-cloth. The Old Man has gone for his captain’s hat, the one he found on a coastguard ship last year, the bells for Mass having already rung out, and it looks like he won’t linger this morning. There’s no school because it’s a Holy Day, the Presentation of Our Lord, and the Old Man is home from the oil rig for the month of February. At school the Master says it’s the fourth week of ordinary time, but it doesn’t feel ordinary at all.
“Go with your father,” Mam says, pushing me towards the front door where the Old Man is already blessing himself from the Holy Water font. It takes a minute to untangle my school scarf and pull on my anorak, and then I run down the road after him. Mam has gone back to the kitchen to clean the dishes and prepare lunch.
“Who’s the Bird, Da?” I ask again.
“Ach, some old boyfriend of your mother’s. He was planning on marrying her, until I showed up and beguiled her.”
We walk the rest of the way to church in silence, until the Old Man adds, “Oh, the Bird was hopping mad when she began to court me, by God.” There’s a funny look on his face and it seems as if he’s smiling. “I took your mother out to Inch Strand and gave her a rub of the relic and that was the end of it.” He claps his hands together and winks at me.
Later, I ask Mam what a rub of the relic means and she smacks me on the ear.
Delighted, delighted, delighted to read Sam Snoek-Brown’s Facebook entry alerting me to my book hitting the shelves at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. I remember the summer Mo and I lived in the city and the many days we spent at Powell’s. Never thought in a million years I’d have a book on their shelf. With a Pushcart nomination, two incredibly generous reviews, and a loving family gathered for Thanksgiving, this is one fine week. Add to that the fact that I’m back teaching high school English, and it’s even better than the real thing, as the song goes.
reviews of Blood a Cold Blue read today: 1
days to Christmas: 29
blood red sunsets: 1
cups of coffee: 3
cups of tea: 0
pages written: 0
paperweights on desk: 1
books to mail out: 2
checks from bookstore: 1
Pushcart nominated stories available at Redactions: 1
green bows on desk: 1
cups of coffee: 3
glasses of white wine: 1
days to Christmas: 3o
readings tomorrow: 1
tibetan jackets out of cedar chest: 1
receipts on desk: 3
soup & sandwiches: 1