The collection opens with Isolettes and the arresting line
Blue tube, green tube, clear tube, fat tube.
However, perhaps the author is not sure enough either of his own voice, or of the reader's ability to get it, so follows up with A Dr Seuss rhyme. Yes, thanks, got that. Never mind, he continues with an image of a premature baby that is so entirely unexpected and yet spot on, that I was astonished. That is just the opening page.
There is so much here, sometimes too much. The text of Isolettes is thick with puns:
Nick U Nick off
The pent-up suite
If marriage is an institution married people should be institutionalised.
Pushing through though is a tender understanding for character that gives heart to this and the majority of the other stories.
Green fluorescent protein is a bittersweet tale about a 17-year-old boy coming to terms with his sexuality. At home his alcoholic mother talks to the ashes of his dead father, at play Ruby-Doo, the skinny bookish science fan he befriends, confuses his feelings. There are more of Smith s accurate descriptions:
…Ruby-Doo does the fake crowd roar – the hushed wahhhh – I taught him.
These are people that we meet again in Funny weird or funny ha ha? and whilst I am a huge fan of the short story form it felt like there was such warmth and depth to this trio of unusual characters that I would welcome reading a novel about them. The B9ers are a support group for people who have had benign tumours. Bang Crunch is the story of the extraordinary Eepie Carpetrod, whose rare syndrome makes her live her life in fast forward, aging rapidly, racing towards death.
Occasionally it seemed to me that Smith thought of a witty phrase and then wrote a paragraph around it.Extremities is an idea that failed in my opinion as he writes of gloves that yearn for a particular hand, and a talking foot.
The last story, Jaybird is also the longest. It centres on a group of Montreal-based actors. Benoit Doré, a man whose "…laid-back look was a lie. His mussed-up hair came courtesy of a mud putty that had set him back twelve bucks", mentors a woman who works at an agency looking after actors' interests, and she uses the opportunity to take revenge on her clients. The story twists nastily along and I read, wincing. At the end though, there is much needed possibility and hope. Like so many collections, the quality is up and down according to the strength of individual stories, but this is a good introduction to Neil Smith, and I look forward to reading more of him.
Sara Crowley is a writer, bookseller and reviewer. She won The Waterstones Bookseller Bursary, and her novel in progress - Salted - was runner up in Faber's Not Yet Published competition. Her short stories have won prizes and been published in many lovely places, online and in print.