A Man’s Hands by Andrew McCallum Crawford

manshandsA Man’s Hands, Crawford’s third volume of fiction, follows on from his novel Drive! and The Next Stop is Croy and other stories. Several of the stories appearing here have been published in literary mags and e-zines, like Northwords Now and Spilling Ink Review, and that gives a clue straight away to their quality.

These are stories of obsession. They’re written about different men and women, but they’re thematically linked. I found some of this obsession with the theme perplexing, but I like Andrew McCallum Crawford’s sparse style and the way his writing presents humanity stripped back to the essential, and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m glad I did. A Man’s Hands is a concept album of a short story collection. In writing thematically linked stories around different lead characters, he’s saying something about the universality of his subject – this all-consuming yearning for something lost in the past.

Most of the stories feature men cut off in some way. Jack, in ‘Edinburgh Arrivals’, is cut off in mist at the top of Arthur’s Seat. John in ‘Sofitel Gatwick’ is cut off in his hotel room, with real life playing out through the window. Andy in ‘When Iron Turns to Rust’ is isolated in his basic rented room with its cockroach infested drain in the floor and its fraying curtain screening off the toilet, and then again in the café, where everyone around him is happy.

On the face of it, the obsession throughout all the stories is for a woman from the past – some personification of female beauty, delicate and unsullied, yet promiscuous and sexy at the same time. A creature of myth, surely? ‘She’ is never presented as three dimensional. She is a figment of the men in A Man’s Hands’ imagination. She’s the psychedelic drug that gives Andy hallucinations in the snow in ‘Chicken Soup’, when his hands have frozen to the metal railings in a metaphorical representation of his psychological state. ‘She’ is a memory. ‘She’ is unattainable.

A Man’s Hands looks at the writing of fiction itself. “The fact that it was autobiographical he would deny until he was blue in the face”. This is the attitude of Andy, the writer character in ‘Gentlemen, we have a winner’. Having invited the woman he yearns for to the award ceremony where he’s to read his winning story, he finds the event flat without her. Then, when he does see her in the audience and persuades her to forget her husband and go back to his hotel room with her, it’s too easy. It’s not sex he yearns for; it’s much more elusive than that. He prefers to make coffee so they can talk about the stories – his stories and what inspires them. She’s his muse.

By the end, the generic male lead has come through various stages of obsession, from self-destructive alcohol abuse, living hand to mouth, to something close to distaste once he actually comes within reach of what he desires.

Clarity comes gradually. “If it’s about anything,” the writer character in ‘Gentlemen’ says of his winning story, “it’s about how people should leave the past alone.”

Reviewed by Carol McKay

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Andrew McCallum Crawford