9 Oct 2014

the red man turns to green by Dickson Telfer

The strength of The Red Man Turns to Green (which I think is correctly titled ‘the red man turns to green’ as capitalisation isn’t a feature that the author much employs in this great assortment) is in the attention to the finer points of storytelling. 

If you wanted a stmodern-day master class on short story writing you could do worse than follow these cues, employed without effort by Dickson Telfer: recognisable characters, sketched confidently, and placed in strong dramatic situations.

Now that might be an obvious approach in the case of some construction workers filming a stunt on top of a crane, but it works just as well in situations that are more mundane. 

One of the more compelling stories in the assortment is ‘43 and in Asda’ which relates the thoughts of a middle aged guy in a supermarket — a fine deconstruction of man, mind and marketing in general.  It’s also quite an achievement in terms of sustaining one voice, while keeping things light, funny and sympathetic.

The Red Man Turns to Green is not a book that is scared of taking risks, and this pays.  There is more that can go wrong in the writing of a short story than a novel.  If a short story has shortcomings then these are immediately apparent — unlike in a novel which can plough on for chapters failing to amuse readers who may expect it to turn around at any moment. 

This means that in these desperate times, when concentration spans can be as low as that of a stoned media socialite, short stories are in direct competition with newsfeeds and the backs of cereal boxes.  That’s why I think The Red Man Turns to Green stretches itself in so many directions at once.  It has the playfulness that one often finds in a debut collection and it tries out new tricks while riffing well on old tricks — anything in short to grab you. 

Recalling another great debut Scottish collection, Duncan Maclean’s Bucket of Tongues (1992), Dickson Telfer’s collection seems to be so up to date as to have been spoken out loud by its characters and flavoured with 21st century living — which means social media, mass marketing, and shopping.  Bucket of Tongues for its time, arrived with that same confidence and recognisable cast, and it’s that which you’ll take from Dickson Telfer’s collection — it is a book that is full of people you know.

The stories in The Red Man Turns to Green gradually increase in fervour and pathos.  From modest beginnings — your average Falkirker on a train happens to be sitting across from the biggest prick on the planet — the arrival of a new fridge freezer in the home — turning up for your first ever massage — Dickson Telfer’s tales have a facility for making the everyday compelling.

If there is one theme that unites the book however, it is the way the stories recourse to effortlessly include what’s on everybody’s mind.  Telfer is in fact the ultimate omniscient narrator, expressing doubt at the properties of the words we use as willingly as he expresses disgust at a world gone wrong.  Nowhere is this disgust better expressed in one of the book’s total laugh out loud vignettes, called ‘mcsnap’, which paints a mightily vulgar picture of the modern Scots diet:
I can smell the pungent reek of processed shit seeping out of the walls of McDonald’s and shake my head in disgust at how busy it is.  People are queuing in their droves, awaiting the opportunity to swap their cash, hard-earned or otherwise, for grey reconstituted meat patties served on buns packed with additives and preservatives.  No wonder I’ve never seen a mouldy Big Mac.

Sitting in Grill Bay 1 are two girls in a blue Corsa, one an attractive brunette, the other a fat blonde.  The brunette rolls down the passenger window about four inches, just enough to accommodate a McDonald’s drinks cup.  The cup falls to the ground with a limp thump; the cheap plastic lid pops off and strawberry milkshake bleeds on to the tarmac.
You see, at the heart of Dickson Telfer’s appeal is a gift for the preposterous, conveyed in language and imagery that brings everything down to earth.  For everyone living in Scotland there is much to recognise, and many of the normal hoary tropes of Scottish literature that he indulges in are stretched, tenderised, twisted and reworked into so many risky new shapes that it’s easy to lose track of time reading it.

Dickson Telfer likes language and its play; he points out that the red man doesn't actually turn to green, as we commonly say, but in fact the light with the red man on it switches off and the light with the green man on it, switches on.  After this wise, then, Dickson Telfer makes a virtue out of writing about the many different ways in which we frame daily life.  On top of that, The Red Man Turns to Green beats with a nutter’s heart and is sharp, funny and one of the best story collections published in Scotland in the last year.

The Red Man Turns to Green at Fledgling Press