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Mean Streets, Tender Hearts

This Thing Called Courage: South Boston Stories
by JG Hayes. Southern Tier Editions

The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide
Boston, January 2003

I should imagine readers of short stories – and God help us, their writers too – must be sick to the teeth of comparisons with Brokeback Mountain. But more and more as I was reading these stories, I was put in mind of Annie Proulx’s quintessential gay-themed classic. All writers strive for authenticity: Proulx exudes it like sweat: a world true to itself, revealed in a language its own. Happily, J.G. Hayes in this his first collection comes “wicked close” to that ideal.

We’re in South Boston, mostly in the streets, the turf streets of gangs and trashcans. You can hear the cop sirens, see the flashing lights. Kids screw down an alley with the “thump thump of sneakers” – almost, as you read, you feel the puff of their breath on your neck. You have the street-smart: “it’s Crazies Turf down there big time, that’s their fucking East Coast Headquarters” – this of a graveyard where a friend is buried. Street-funny: a kid contemplates suicide “casually like I’m saying Bismark is the capital of North Dakota”.And, most chancy of all, you have the street-lyrical: the flawless moves of a baseball player “flowing like slow electricity”. Chancy, beacuse I know how hard it is to pull that one off, and still remain true to the character, to his place. Hayes does it wonderfully, and you catch the surprise in the kid’s voice that he has it within him to describe such things.

The metaphorical inventiveness is bewitching. Cigarette smoke palls below the ceiling “like incense Heaven doesn’t want”. Thunder growls overhead “like grownups fighting upstairs and you don’t know why”. A scar on a boy’s face is as though “the Master Hand had oopsed at the last second”. A player catches a ball and we have the beautiful slow describing of “both hands clutched softly like he was catching a bird you didn’t want to hurt”. I challenge anyone to render the uniqeness and yet essential similarity of human bodies more neatly than this: “as if two separate designers worked on plans from the same engineer”. Punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing – Hayes, like one of his no-hope characters, has ripped up the rule-book: the truth is in the telling, it’s the way these people talk.

Mean streets ... but tender hearts. What is this thing called courage? For Hayes it isn’t your common valour, it certainly isn’t peer-group machismo. In a sense, quite literally, it’s kids’ play: in this concrete world the strength of will to avow the human heart. As when one kid so desperately wants to tell another, “Billy, I’m not crazy, just tender.”

Whether it’s a sixth-grader coming to terms with a friend’s suicide, a schoolboy’s betrayal of his teacher, or a fireman’s first touch of another man’s body (“the hills and valleys of muscle and tissue and terror”), courage is what binds these stories, the search in young hearts for the honesty to say yes. And the pain and stress of finding it:

“There is this thing called Courage and it hovered above me all that weekend like a cloud I tried to jump up and get it but it was higher than it looked.”

Not everything is perfect here (learning when to end is the most difficult and heart-breaking lesson for any writer). But for the lover of short stories there’s an abundance of pleasure, and for this writer much to envy. The rawness, the exuberance reveal a powerful voice in the making.

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