In the preface to an earlier collection of stories, Alan Sillitoe spoke of the difficulties involved in his choice of working people, most often the blue-collar poor of his own English Midlands, as the subjects of his fiction. "Emotions," he wrote, "have to be delineated in the minds of people who are not usually prone to describing them."
Representing the consciousness of his characters in the coarseness and tender simplicity of their own language has long been Sillitoe's forte. "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," the story that, 20 years ago, brought critical attention to this son of a Nottingham tanner, is an effortless marathon of interior monologue in which facts and feelings accrue almost impericeptibly. It is as if the events that landed a tough street kid on a detention-home track team and, once there, the incorrigible spirit that drove him to run his race by his own rules, were incidental to the even-paced, mesmerizing rhythms of the narrative voice. The most recent of Sillitoe's novels, "The Widower's Son," the story of an upwardly mobile British artillery officer, and "The Storyteller," a not-wholly-successful recasting of the writer's role, demonstrate this same ability to blend cold-blooded rendering of the exterior world with insightful and sensitive representation of the inner workings of the characters' minds.
In his new collection of stories, Sillitoe shows that he is still able to integrate the outter and inner worlds of the people he portrays. Though he highlights their thoughts and emotions, he never leaves us with thoughts and emotions only; we are never abandoned, as we are in so much recent short fiction, to a character's rambling meditations on his own uneventful life. Things happen in Sillitoe's stories, and when we enter the thoughts of his characters, it is generally because outside events have touched off inner urgencies, have prompted mute minds to speech.
"A Scream of Toys" is the story of Edie Climpson, a Nottingham working girl, a child of the Depression, who, in the last days of World War II, meets and falls for a gentle Italian POW named Mario. One night, after Edie has failed to convince a travel agent to convert Mario's foreign bank notes into pounds, the two of them stand in silence on a bridge over the Trent River. Edie turns to Mario and considers him, and through her, we experience the poetic transformation of a prosaic life:
"He was miles away, living in sounds and colors she had no hope of understanding, though she liked the warm and dreamy feeling when she tried to picture them. With an English bloke she wouldn't have had such dreams. They'd have joshed and teased like kids -- whereas with Mario she saw mountains and yellow trees, and a sky so blue it would blind you if you looked straight at it. But she didn't want to because her dream was too far beyond her normal mind."
Failures and triumphs, losses and new loves -- these are the events that spark Sillitoe's stories and illuminate unlit landscapes in his people's minds. "A Time to Keep" opens with Martin, a dreamy 14-year-old bibliophile, barely aware of his impending choice between the drab working life of his parents and a vastly different life he might make for himself and his books. It is not until he accompanies his loud-mouthed cousin to work one day on a highway job and there witnesses a senseless accident that his options become clear in his mind. Here, as elsewhere in this volume, Sillitoe's evenhanded treatment of a potentially melodramatic incident allows him to move quietly from a dramatic event to its subtle repercussions in the lives of the people involved.
He does not always make the shift so smoothly. The title story, about an elderly couple and a young con artist whom they persuade to impersonate their dead son, is a tedious tale that focuses too closely on the minutiae of mental processes and shifts indiscriminantly from one character's mind to another's. By the end of the piece, we are so bored and dizzied by the droning of dislocated voices that even the violent conclusion cannot jolt us back to our senses.
But this lengthy masquerade is the book's only serious failure. All the other stories, whose subjects range from a 19th-century homicidal postman to a modern bureaucrat who tells a fantastic lie at a cocktail party, are remarkable for their balance of mind and matter. We understand these people, and care about what happens to them. In "The Second Chance," Alan Sillitoe proves himself to be one of the few living writers who can achieve the psychological complexity we expect of modern fiction while still satisfying that simple, old-fashioned sense of what a good story should be.