Hunger for Connection

Adam O’Riordan, The Burning Ground

Bloomsbury, 208pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781408864784

reviewed by Paul Johnathan

‘There is no home here,’ reads the epigraph by Christopher Isherwood that sets the scene and tone for The Burning Ground, the prose debut of poet Adam O’Riordan. It’s an appropriate prelude to this impressive range of short stories. O’Riordan’s poetic vision explores the male experience by juxtaposing a dreamy Californian landscape and a dreamlike romanticism with rather purgatorial characters and a blurred sense of narrative endings.

This isn’t a typical debut. There is no authorial intention to shock, to overwhelm, to dazzle, to overindulge, to self-reflect, to disclose – even in ‘The El Segundo Blue Butterfly,’ the collection’s only story narrated in the first person, and by far the standout. ‘I wish there was something I could feel sentimental about,’ its narrator, Christopher, confesses, capturing the feeling of disconnection that plagues all of the book’s protagonists.

The men in this collection are caught in between recollections of their past and the disillusionment of their present, leading claustrophobic lives, drifting through with minimal or no intent. ‘A spectator looking down from the bleachers as his life crumbled around him,’ reads a description of Lindstrom in ‘Rambla Pacifico;’ meanwhile, Harvey remains unnoticed among the regulars at a bar in ‘A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica.’ These are stories about motionlessness and metaphoric prisons, featuring ‘indistinguishable’ men. They remain distant and largely inactive, powerless to act or even react, their non-participation and the rather detached narration interrupted by far too many flashbacks that slow down the plot’s progress, creating a difficult collection. O’Riordan ultimately succeeds in keeping his audience in suspense, but his lyricism is interrupted by his effort to ground the narrative through references to larger world events.

O’Riordan has largely steered clear of the current debate on toxic masculinity, choosing to focus on male bonds. In ‘A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica,’ Harvey, a London freelancer, forms a fleeting connection to a fellow passenger during a bout of turbulence: ‘. . . it was understood by Harvey that he had been reached out to in his last moments. That humanity had prevailed and that men had faced their fates together.’ McCauley, in ‘Wave-Riding Giants,’ recalls a story his friend Fishkin once told of his time in service: ‘An infantryman in his unit had run his bayonet into the guts of their young sergeant who had lost his mind and whose screaming threatened to give away their position. Another soldier had cradled the sergeant, holding a soiled handkerchief to his mouth, the handkerchief turning a deep crimson as the boy bled out.’ Even when caught in the horrors of war, these characters reflect on the importance of homosocial friendship, of human empathy, almost rejecting the violence surrounding them. The intention is to capture moments between strangers, individuals disconnected from each other, the world, whether it is a journalist reconnecting with his first interviewee or a father attempting to connect with his son.

This is best expressed in ‘Wave-Riding Giants,’ in which McCauley recollects a life spent as an observer, facing a long-suppressed memory of his wife’s infidelity, in which he was nothing more than an audience:

He saw Dolores drop to her knees, and then lost sight of her behind the kitchen counter. He saw Moe leaning back, spreading his large hands across the kitchen counter. Then Moe’s cousin running his hand through Dolores’s hair. McCauley saw the cousin’s hand tightly at her jaw, the way you might fit a muzzle on to a greyhound. The next thing McCauley saw was Dolores’s hand gripping at the counter. This came into focus as he walked up the path. McCauley remembered how Moe’s head was tipped back now and how his Adam’s apple was bobbing up and down as he swallowed hard. And as quickly as it happened, Dolores up and laughing and then both men taking her by the wrists and pulling her into the bedroom at the front of the house. McCauley froze outside, halfway along the path and through window screens looked on for what might have been seconds or hours at the blurred shapes the three of them made.

O’Riordan seems intent on using this particular story to highlight the misdirection that lives can take. McCauley enlisted in the war as a young man, seeing it as an opportunity to ‘turn himself into a citizen with motive, purpose and direction,’ but in the end is revealed to have led a life of regret.

In a similar fashion, the unnamed protagonist of the collection’s title story, a British artist, is plagued with recollections of an affair that has long ended:

In a vague way now he remembered this rash when he thought of Alannah and those years she had always been in the background of his thoughts, as his new life continued around him: exhibitions, dinners, dates with divorced women a decade younger than him, drawn to his minor celebrity in certain circles, who sensed a hollowness at his core they could not account for and he was unwilling to explain.

Whether married with kids or single and tangled in affairs, these men carry the effects of time everywhere they go: ‘The lines on his brow had grown deeper over the past few years. He tilted the spoon to inspect the few silver strands that had recently appeared at his temples,’ we read about Harvey. ‘Rambla Pacifico’ best encapsulates the pressing awareness of time: ‘Their shapes moving around the white room seemed to belong to a land of the young from which Lindberg was permanently exiled.’

In 2008 O’Riordan became the youngest Poet-in-Residence at The Wordsworth Trust, the Centre for British Romanticism. It is unsurprising, then, that The Burning Ground, much like his two collections of poetry, is a profoundly romantic work. The collection features particularly heightened lyricism when the focus shifts from the male protagonists to the women that haunt them. An underlying eroticism permeates the book, even when the protagonists are merely referring to women, further highlighting the desire for connection. One such case is Adella in ‘Rambla Pacifico,’ who is depicted as an almost ethereal, magical creature: ‘Adella of the coal-black eyes and cinnamon skin. Adella of the mesmeric sashay [. . .] Adella who would make the air feel heavy in your lungs whose fragrant spectre rose up in Lindberg’s mind as he lay in his undershirt and boxer shorts in his single bed, head reeling from the malt, his member limp in his hand.’

All the women in the collection are fleeting figures, outside the reach of the men, painted as fantasies the men are barred from by the harsh reality of their present. O’Riordan maintains an introspective narrative voice throughout the book, offering access only to the male perspective. The result is not a juvenile expression of bottled-up resentment on his part but rather an almost political statement of the characters’ – and in some ways, the author’s and the entire male population’s – total disconnectedness from the women they desire.

O’Riordan creates intimate portrayals of these relationships through sex scenes crafted with sensual precision rather than shock value. ‘It wasn’t the sex, the tide of Teresa’s desire hard to navigate or predict; sometimes animalistic, his torso raised with welts and scratches, as they lay together in the afterglow. Other times, as tentative as teenagers as Teresa’s hands slowly mapped the geometry of Harvey’s face,’ reads ‘A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica.’ Harvey is the collection’s strongest representation of male desire, and his story heavily relies on descriptions of physicality. ‘As the plane gained height Harvey would feel his body respond, increasing the pressure on his heels, righting itself as it tried to adjust to the altitude.’ His hunger for connection manifests when fantasising about a girl he fleetingly came across. Much like the other stories, his features no resolution, his desires ultimately unfulfilled.

‘The Burning Ground’ acts as the collection’s climax, both through the intensity of its sex scenes and O’Riordan’s signature romantic poetics:

They did not speak. He set about reclaiming her, first lifting off her jacket, then digging his nails in hard below her shoulder blades, pressing through the fine linen of her camisole as they kissed. Pushing her against the crossbar of a racing bicycle that had sat unused in the entrance way for the best part of a decade. Her teeth clashed against his dry lips, drawing blood. He tasted it ferrous and metallic at the corner of her mouth as they kissed.

By contrast, the final two stories depart from the author’s known style. The humorous tone of ’‘98 Mercury Sable’ feels like a leftover from previous discarded writing sessions, while ‘Magda’s A Dancer,’ written entirely as a dialogue between two young couples, comes across as an exercise in directness, an ingredient somewhat absent from the rest of this book.

O’Riordan’s vision is to suspend time, to capture moments fleeting in recollection, to create stories that are more photographic than cinematic. This results in a collection that, while romantic, lacks the urgency of his poetry. ‘You were younger here somehow, a man returned,’ he writes in one of his poems in A Herring Famine, also published this year. It is precisely this directness in expressing loss that would have propelled The Burning Ground further.