OTHER VOICES

By Andrew Humphrey

Reviewed by Tim Lieder

It's not you, it's me. I've moved on. I'm just not ready for this kind of a commitment. You've heard them. You've said them. Most of the time you are just grasping for the most available cliché, but sometimes the cliché is absolutely true. You've just fallen out of love. The boyfriend or girlfriend hasn't changed. In fact she's pretty much the same person you picked up in a bar or met in college. Yet you have changed. Everything that you once loved now makes you cringe. Her baby girl voice embarrasses you. You hate every gift she gives you. His free bohemian spiritual lifestyle feels more and more like flakiness every day. And you were never cool with the snoring.

With Other Voices Andrew Humphrey captures this time for all the wrong reasons. Andrew Humphrey begins strong with Grief Inc., a science fiction story that borders on Dystopia but carries none of the "we're all doomed baggage" of 1984 and the ilk. The narrator is an empathic personality who can take away people's pain for a price, and under a religious dictatorship most need his services more than ever. Humphrey mitigates the palpable dread with a core of integrity. Not to say that the main character is virtuous; far from it. He has integrity because he carries on despite the absurdity. Had Humphrey written Grief Inc. in the 1940s, it would have been a pinnacle of existentialist and dystopian literature.

Humphrey's prose punches you in the gut with the second story Strawberry Hill (here on Whispers). A man from the past threatens a married couple's happiness. As he intrudes into the lives of the protagonist and his wife, the narrator's lies about their former friendship become increasingly convoluted. When Humphrey reveals the connection between the narrator and his old friend, the result is both creepy and cleansing.

The signature piece Other Voices concerns a police officer who insists that a dead hooker is his long lost sister. His mania increases as one by one his friends refuse to believe him. It is truly a frightening horror story, where the monster is never outside but always squarely in the mind of the protagonist. The one weak spot is the scene in which the detective wakes up and interacts with his wife:

"Fuck," he said, then kicked Helen under the covers, feeling her fleshy buttocks against his bare foot, and then a sudden, unexpected stab of arousal. He resented that as well. She stirred, but didn't wake. "Bitch," he said and stumbled out of bed.

This misogyny serves the story, but it portends doom for the rest of the anthology. Old Wounds is about a couple that swapped spouses with another couple until one of the four died. They hate each other. War Stories involves a man who talks to a derelict about the war in Bosnia. His wife has left him. He hates her. In Butter Wouldn't Melt a man is cheating on his wife with his best friend's wife. Everyone involved hates each other. In Three Days a man's daughter disappears but he spends most of the story talking about how much he hates his wife.

See the pattern? When there is the occasional bright story such as Dogfight, about a man dealing with his grandfather and his son, the wife is safely dead. Over the course of 13 stories, the writing goes from powerful to ponderous, since Humphrey keeps telling the same first person story about a bitter loser, usually with a spiteful bitch wife that he can't wait to betray.

And this is why this book invokes falling out of love, because you really want to love it after the first three stories, but by the end, you will hate it. One story about a loser in a bad marriage who gets into strange situations is powerful. Six are deadly dull. Thirteen stories of this ilk and a collection of powerful short stories becomes a Baton Death March of dreck. The misogyny goes from an artistic way to depict the loneliness of the universally male protagonists to just plain misogyny. It's a shame too. Almost every individual story works. Just put them all together and they turn into shit.

Other Voices by Andrew Humphrey. Elastic Press tpb, 221pp, £5.99 plus £1.50 p&p, available from the publisher and select retail outlets (for details refer to the publisher's website).

Website: - www.elasticpress.com


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