Furnace by Wayne Price
There was no depth to life, I remember thinking
suddenly, and it seemed like a moment of final
clarity and truth to me, the great lesson of my
long, trivial summer. There was a shifting,
fascinating surface to people and the things
they felt and said, but underneath it all was
just a stony simplicity.
The award-winning, Scotland-based short story writer Wayne Price is no stranger to Gutter magazine, having seen two stories published within its pages, in its first and fifth issues. The latter, ‘The Wedding Flowers’, is reprinted in this, his first collection, which – it must be noted, in the literary equivalent of a declaration of interest – comes from the same publisher as this very literary journal. Collecting together a baker’s dozen of stories, standing tall without the increasingly obligatory introduction by a recognisable author, Furnace quickly shows that Price is a measured, meticulous writer. This is both the collection’s strength and its potential weakness.
In one sense at least, his stories cross the world, with locations ranging from Edinburgh to New Hampshire, from a down-at-heels Welsh fishing village to the dusty Chilean countryside. As for his central point of view characters, he seldom repeats the same gender, age, class or cultural characteristics, although it’s fair to say that their sexual orientation is invariably heterosexual. That said, in ‘Rain’, it’s arguable that the strongest, albeit passive, presence in the narrative is an injured racing pigeon. By bringing these stories together, however, Furnace also shows just how similar Price’s writing can appear on first reading. Images and tropes pop up repeatedly, such as unseasonably hot weather, insects on flesh, fish, and characters named only by what they do – the fisherman, the slaughterman, the manager. Characters are invariably mired in the memories of past actions, marred by the wisdom of hindsight. Perhaps most important of all, regardless of whether the story is being told in the first or third person – or who the pivotal character actually is – Price’s cool authorial voice remains clear throughout. And it is the kind of voice that ensures, however much you might sympathise with his characters’ confusion, sadness and loss, it’s generally difficult to care much about them.
Yet these are not stories that fade quickly in the memory; despite a lack of any flashy writing, these are tales which can linger, unsettlingly, in your quiet moments. Given that Price first came to Scotland in 1987 to begin a PhD on contemporary American fiction, it’s not stretching credulity to suggest that he is consciously following in the footsteps of Raymond Carver, who was at the height of his powers at that time. Yet Price’s work isn’t simply a hollow copy of Carver; he has found his own voice and expression of Henry David Thoreau’s much-quoted “lives of quiet desperation”.
If you are a reader who habitually jumps around collections and anthologies, choosing what to read first on length, title or other such criteria, it’s worth pointing out that Furnace offers real rewards to those who read the stories in the order in which they are published. Thematic variations flow from story to story – from uncooked fish in one to cooked fish in the next, and then on to a story called Salmon. Price is like a cool jazz musician, using his familiar tools and idiosyncrasies to improvise subtle variations in colour and tone in each piece; building from one story to the next is a subtle strand that pulls you through the collection. Optimism may not be obviously on show, but there are moments of real pleasure to be found within these pages. Furnace is a startlingly confident and powerful debut.
Freight Books, rrp £8•99, 176pp