Listen & Other Stories
- By Liam Callanan
- Four Way Books
- 297 pp.
- Reviewed by Timothy Day
- June 6, 2015
A subtly powerful, layered collection of tales.
Liam Callanan’s Listen is aptly titled, as its effect is a quiet one. Quietly haunting, to be more precise; these stories have a great way of getting under the skin and lingering beyond the final page. With great compassion for his characters, Callanan meets them at a series of critical points, getting into their heads with precision and finding warmth, humor, sorrow, grief, and fear.
In one of my favorite stories from the collection, “Bear Hunter,” Callanan details a horrific night within a Boy Scout encampment from the perspective of a haunted boy dealing with the recent death of his brother. He now finds himself face to face with another potential impending death in the form of a fellow scout suffering from a bear attack. Meditative in tone, what makes this story so haunting is not so much the gory details as the quiet sense of grim resignation that takes root in the narrator’s psyche.
While the story’s events deal with matters as urgent as life and death, Callanan finds more interest in the narrator’s exposure to a sort of abstract ugliness, which takes the form of the bear hunter character that surfaces in the second half of the story. “I didn’t want to know for certain that Dr. Paber wasn’t a real doctor. I didn’t want to know what had really happened to Mr. Mulroney in basic training…I didn’t want to remember I’d ever wanted Eddie to die and that I’d wanted to watch.” This abstraction becomes a sort of existential dread by the end of the story. “It’s not the bear that haunts me, though, not Eddie, not that missing piece of his head. It’s the bear hunter, deliberate and sure, always coming.”
In the subtly hopeful “Bedtime Story,” which focuses on the conflicted Bridget, who finds herself settling for a man — and a life — she may not want, we are reminded to acknowledge the “angels in the darkness,” who “don’t do anything else but sit there. But that makes you feel better doesn’t it?” This unexpected utterance from the son of the man Bridget gets entangled with proves to be a sort of salvation for her.
The next two stories in Listen, “When The Lights Go Down,” and “Mr. Fantastic,” are great character portraits, both centering on cerebral, aging protagonists with young love interests. While the characters’ loneliness is palpable, there is an ultimately cathartic feeling to both of these stories, though in a more melancholic sense when it comes to the latter.
Speaking of cathartic, the title story of Listen is just that. This reviewer loved the premise of this story, which centers on a son dealing with the complications caused by his father’s profession — recording soundbites of background noise and people screaming, laughing, etc. to sell to movie directors — when it comes to recordings of his late mother.
She is kept alive in their relationship by tapes of her walking through the house, performing routine household tasks, and one special tape which features her emitting an odd, disorienting scream. But as the story seems to be developing into a mystery, it takes a turn in which a deeper connection is found, brought about by Callanan in a wonderfully organic and unique manner.
Other stories in the collection are memorable for their invention (“140 Characters”), ambiguity (“Called”), and poignant sorrow (“This Last Thing,” and “Paper War,” which leaves the narrator in a similar position of loneliness backlit by tragedy as Esther in the collection’s first story, “The Swimmers”).
Some stories, like “Flush,” and “Exhibit A,” felt more forgettable to me, though enjoyable all the same. While the stories in Listen include a variety of compelling characters in circumstances that range from dire to the everyday, that word, quiet, is perhaps uniformly applicable in one way or another, and Callanan works it to great effect.
Timothy Day is a writer and aspiring filmmaker living in Seattle. His stories have appeared or are upcoming in such journals as Menacing Hedge, the Apple Valley Review, Burrow Press Review, WhiskeyPaper, Bird’s Thumb, and others.