Following the example of Irish Novelist Jan Carson (Malcolm Orange Disappears and Childrens’ Children, both by Liberties Press) I spent the shortest month reading short story collections, and there were few that I enjoyed as much as Jeff Weddle’s When Giraffes Flew.
Don’t judge this short and immensely powerful book by its cover — there is nothing simplistic or childlike about the writing behind that brightly coloured image of giraffes cavorting through a cloudy sky. Rather the writing is intense, mature and occasionally brutal in the heart-stopping inevitability of some of the stories. In several stories I found myself racing ahead in hope that the catastrophe could be averted, and in some cases it was… or merely postponed… several stories leave a little to the imagination at the end, which is always to be admired.
The stories are contemporary tales but set in a rural, southern landscape that seems to have changed little in recent decades. The locale is beautifully but sparingly evoked, a word or phrase, here and there, hinting at a wealth of wordy description that could so easily have sneaked in, but doesn’t.
I am an Irish reader who has visited the USA half a dozen times in twenty years and thus could hardly claim any expertise, but several scenes in the book made me stop and say “Yes, I remember that!” and “Yes, I had forgotten that!” The repeated references to drink-driving and drinking-while-driving allowed me to recall nearly being arrested for walking home from a bar late at night through a wealthy, rural area, and being wholly unable to make the Police officer understand that in Ireland, no-one would drive home while slightly drunk. (You’d have to be completely hammered to be able to convince yourself that it’s acceptable behaviour.) Eventually he drove off counselling, “Make sure you drive next time, and don’t be upsetting the good people here by walking round in the dark!” Every time Weddle’s southern, hard-living characters lift a bottle to their lips in a speeding vehicle, I think of that night. Perhaps I am lucky he didn’t shoot me.
Which leads me to another point. I know that Weddle is horrified by the gun culture of his country and advocates gun control. In so many of the stories I found myself thinking, “If only he didn’t have a gun…”, “Oh God, don’t pull out that gun…” A host of misunderstandings and misconceptions (and down-right criminality) that in other countries would lead to a punch-up and a prosecution, here lead to the morgue. It’s a fascinating insight into a culture that outwardly seems so similar and yet is so incredibly different from Europe. Can’t afford your eye-operation? Tough shit; go blind. (That story doesn’t end well, I promise you.) Haven’t studied for your Math exam? That’s the least of your worries.
The stand-out story for me? The Kafkaesque horror of A Simple Enquiry, which brought to mind Martin McDonagh’s wonderful dark and horrifically funny play The Pillowman.
If I were forced to complain about this book, I would say that the cover didn’t reflect (for me) the complexity and strength of the characters and the lives of quiet desperation revealed within the pages. And secondly, I wanted more of some of the stories; the short glimpse I had into these fascinating lives made me wish that some of the micro-fictions had been worked into longer pieces. (But wishing for more is hardly a complaint, right?)