What to say? Black Dust and Other Tales of Interrupted Childhood is a beautiful book. Remove its dust jacket and the matte black of the boards binds the book in its own compressed carbon. The stories are by Graham Joyce, with an introduction by Mark Chadbourn, and contributions from Jeffrey Ford and Jeff VanderMeeer. It is a book produced to raise money for Nqabakazulu Secondary School near Durban in South Africa, and I hope it does.
But it is a slight book. The stories have been published elsewhere, "Black Dust" in 2001, "Tiger Moth" and "Under the Pylon" in 2003. "Tiger Moth" and "Pylon" are thin, rather predictable ghost stories. Their pleasure (and there is much pleasure) is in the execution, a point which both Ford and VanderMeer make. "Tiger Moth" is a tired tale of a man who suffers from the over-whelming and selfish control of his widowed mother. Seeing a ghost of his childhood is enough to persuade him to take an offered job in another city. The story works only as long as one is immersed in Joyce’s writing. Move away from it and it collapses into a petty confection in which mother is blamed for boyish resentment and adulthood is manifested in (illusory) escape. If I were the student to whom Ford sent this story — to convince him to study music, instead of business — I would feel patronized and infuriated. This is not a story of duty chosen with eyes wide open; it is a story of dependency shifted from parent to friend to employer.
In "Under the Pylon" a boy disappears when he climbs a pylon and is never seen again. The story is surrounded by the characteristic boy-girl games that appear in a number of Joyce’s works, a faded pornography of ennui. It ends again as so many of Joyce’s bildungsroman end, with a sense always that the narrator is moving away from this world, has never perhaps truly regarded himself as of it.
The piece which most attracts Chadbourn, Ford and VanderMeer is the title story, "Black Dust" and rightly so. Andy waits to hear if his father will be rescued from the coal seam where he is trapped. Andy is stoic. His friend Bryn’s attempts at comfort are shrugged off. There is reflection, and Andy remembers his Dad confronting Bryn’s Dad over the matter of Bryn’s bruises. He remembers also Bryn’s father’s delight in presenting the boys with guitars. And then it is Bryn’s Dad who dies in the rescue attempt, his ghost manifesting to Andy in a second cave, never found again. The story is told in quiet, controlled tones. Chadbourn, Ford and VanderMeer are all right about that. But this reader was baffled that they ascribed that to Joyce’s skill. "Nine out of ten writers would have had fists flying or at least a heated yelling match…" (Ford, 27) The missing word is "American". What Joyce is describing is the characteristic British way of masculine confrontation. It may be fading now, but it permeated the world Joyce describes and is replicated in the writings of many British authors. What makes the story specifically Joyce’s has more to do with the way the children are described. Only William Mayne matches that ability to write the mood of childhood into the physical movement of the child. The result is astonishingly intense: Joyce’s children appear as compacted dark matter, small universes about to burst into the world.
Which brings me to the accompanying material. It adds little to the book: the three pieces are neither perceptive critiques nor informative reflections. The introduction is just a little too sanctimonious and mawkish: minors and miners are not the same, they do not exist in a world of similarity ("lives sealed away from us"), and the People’s History Museum in Manchester has a huge archive of miners talking about their condition. They were the backbone of the British union movement and produced an astonishing amount of literature. The comparison is fatuous and put my back up instantly. Jeffrey Ford’s essay is fascinating as long as it sticks to Joyce’s text, but it is much too short; at around seven hundred words it reads as assertion where it could have been analysis. I have already said what I think about his attempt to peddle Joyce as chicken soup for the student soul. Jeff VanderMeer’s even shorter essay (perhaps five hundred words) is essentially a set of blurbs telling us how to respond to the stories. It should have been printed on the back of the book.
I exited the book feeling that the reader and Joyce deserved more. I would have preferred just "Black Dust" and a series of short, genuinely critical essays. But it is a beautiful object and that one story justified my time.
[Note: All of the contributors to this book have given their work and time for free. Other notable contributors include Zoran Živković (back cover text), Michael Marshall Smith (design), Tony Baker (cover art), Bob Wardzinski (editor) and Roger Robinson (publication) — Cheryl.]