Cheers, Somebody

by Katie Lewis

Often books and conferences for writers focus on the big parts of stories, such as plot, characters, pace, dialogue, etc.

I tend to approach writing in the opposite manner. Specifically, that the best writers are those who start from the smallest of details and build upward. My logic is that if they’ve taken the time to imagine a single, spot-on gesture, they’ve thought through the characters and story with equal care.

In the short story collection titled Cheers, Somebody, author Katie Lewis consistently nails the minute details that make the characters and their interactions real. Often simply admirably precise, other details are appropriately blunt and crass, while others are painfully truthful. Together the constant and consistent attention to the smallest parts of each story quickly create the mini-universe that is a short story, while also providing that necessary spin of uniqueness on common themes of love, loss, conflict and culture.

Choosing an example from the multitude is difficult, but here’s one from the first story for which the book is titled:

Collins danced his empty cup on the table, making a pock-pock-pock noise with the indented bottom’s echo until Stew placed his hand on top of the cup to make it stop.

The author continues that careful attention to detail throughout the story’s dialogue. Here’s an example from Ink J, the story I found most powerful.

“I, uh, I don’t know how to bring this up,” Bilson after several silent minutes of chewing rubbery licorice. “Not ‘I got news today’ or ‘Here’s something,’ but, well, I suppose. Anyway. I found out today that my college roommate died.”

While I’d term most of the stories accessible literary, a few stretch the mind, including a dystopian love story and a tale that uses brief and highly intimate scenes to portray the narrator’s relationship, seemingly with one man.

And that’s where I’ll leave the mystery!

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The Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

As I read this book, the writing became “gorgouser and gorgeouser,” the very term the main character uses to describe — with full-on melancholy — the love of his life that he slid away from. Rather than lyrical in the way harp music or a serene river flowing by, the book’s language is akin to an Irish beach where you’re likely to cut your feet on the sharp rock not yet ground into fine sand, despite centuries of pummeling.

The story begins with lifelong Irish mates Maurice and Charlie Redmond sitting in a humid, dirty fairy building in Algeciras, Spain, hoping to intercept Maurice’s 23-year-old daughter, Dilly, who disappeared herself. While most of the story is told through dialogue and flashbacks, of which I’m not a fan, Kevin Barry’s writing is so marvelously shard-like in its poetry, and the revelations so simple and shocking, that the story sails. The mystery of why the daughter felt the need to lose herself from these men’s lives is apparent when the duo strong-arm a young dreadlocked man for news of Dilly and the vagabond says, “Why’d she take off? You ask yourself that ever?”

And there provides the entrance to the back-in-time tunnel that reveals the rough road taken by Moss and Charlie Redmond, and the heartbreak they’ll live with for the rest of their crooked lives.

Besides the Irish colloquialisms, Barry has filled the tale with sensory descriptions meant to be cloyingly rich as the various atmospheres both of Spain and Ireland, back when and now, like this scene of Maurice on a past night in Malaga:

“The city ran a swarm of fast anchovy faces. The surge of the night traffic ran. The harbour lights were festive and moved across the oily water. He walked as far as the beach of Malagueta to get his head right and let the fear settle. He recognized at once there was heroin in the vicinity of Malagueta by night. The heavy sea was constrained on tight lines. He sat in the dark on the sand and listened to the night, the traffic; the fast, sibilant hiss of the Andaluz voices.”

And back in Cork when Maurice has come undone, “He was more than possessed by his crimes and excesses — he was the gaunt accumulation of them. He wanted an out, but he could never be a suicide. He could not willingly deprive the world of himself. He was almost forty-six and if fate did not intervene, he would have to sit it the fuck out.”

Neither delicious nor beautiful, his scrappy prose is a fantastic addition to world literature.

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