It’s not often that you hear an original new voice in writing, but Dickson Telfer’s debut collection of short stories seems to signal him as owning just such a voice. The stories have impressive imaginative power, depicting kaleidoscopic worlds seen from skewed angles through highly coloured prisms.
There is great variation in his narrative style and structure, and also in the protagonists who carry the stories along . He seems to draw many of his characters from his West Lothian roots and succeeds in creating worlds that are as spiky and raw as the Scottish Central Belt humour that inspires them. Yet as with the best writers, Telfer can present these worlds tenderly: spikiness is tempered with human generosity.
Telfer can hold the reader’s attention within a narrative that would in less enthusiastic and skilful hands be rendered banal. Many of his protagonists come from the margins, but others are so ordinary as to appear unpromising as heroes or heroines: A father taking his son to the Post Office; an untroubled man attending a counselling session; someone musing on language at a supermarket checkout. However, as the pages turn, the reader is drawn in to Telfer’s imagined worlds. Telfer’s range is impressive too. The narrator in “Britain’s answer” is a pet dog, grieving for his master. In “retail therapy”, Telfer explores the sexual fantasies of a young man accompanying his girlfriend on a shopping trip. In a less skilful author, this story could have resulted in something cheap and trashy, yet despite the explicit nature of the narrator’s imaginings, the reader (well, this reader) found nothing to be offended by. “Martha Delgado’s little green pill” is the first-person narrative of a seemingly unworried 72 year-old woman with a life-threatening cancer, which she calls “Bertha”. In “fast motion” Telfer comments on the extreme reactions of the tabloid media to a hero’s downfall but, as always, his lightness of touch prevails, so that the reader is allowed in on the irony of the conclusion.
Unlike conventional short-stories, in Telfer’s narrative, the “twist” is often presented gradually or may even be hidden. In one story, “the hard way”, the reader is left with several unanswered questions, provided only with clues that are more suggestive than explicit to the story’s outcome. In the collection’s only “one-line story”, “Blue Sheep”, the twist is in the title.
In a few of the stories, there’s an occasional clunkiness in dialogue, where voices seem to flatten out, but this is rare. Most of the dialogue sparkles and zings along in a convincingly naturalistic fashion. It may be that this collection is the work of years and that what we are seeing is the author’s progression in this capacity. One subtly humorous example of this takes place in ‘the hard way’ where the main character, Denise, is buying paint in a DIY store. The male assistant at the checkout asks,
“Will you manage this okay?”
“Why? Is it because I’m a girl? Do you think it might be too
heavy for me?”
“No, Miss, we ask in case people want a member of staff to help
take items to their cars. Or in case they have mobility issues,
injuries, weaknesses, disabilities or impairments,” Joe replies
in a neutral tone. Denise feels her face flush and glances round,
pleased to see no one is behind her.
You can almost see Telfer’s eye twinkling here as Denise, a tough-minded lesbian accustomed to challenging sexist attitudes, is thoroughly out-politically-corrected by the checkout assistant’s bland repetition of company policy.
Telfer has already scripted a play and is currently writing a novel. It will be very interesting to see how he deals with a sustained commitment to character development that these genres sometimes demand and how he moves from his playful and mobile approach to a deeper level of involvement with subject. The multiplicity of characters and forms in this collection make it difficult to sum up, but here goes… “the red man turns to green” is a splendidly achieved reworking of the kitchen-sink genre.