This explosive new volume of short stories should carry some sort of warning, an emotional equivalent to the Beware of Death stickers that now envelop cigarette packets. Prepare for Pain, perhaps. Airini Beautrais’ Ockham award-winning short story collection, labelled ‘not for the fainthearted’ by one reviewer, appears about as confrontational as a mocha milkshake when set beside the tales of Devil’s Trumpet.
In a collection of stories so varied in shape and length they constitute a style sheet for the short story form, (the list of accolades in the back providing testament to its efficacy), Slaughter delivers a fearless, shameless exposition of want. Positioned in a dystopian world identical to our own, characters battle their way through the combat zones of their small town or shaken city or stark suburban lives, prey to a myriad of human hungers, needs and deprivations. They emerge alive, most of them, but they are all horribly harmed. No one on these pages has escaped pain, or will. Damage is Slaughter’s eyeglass.
The nature and origin of damage is what sets each character, and story, apart. (In warfare there are a thousand ways to fall, after all.) Among the cardinal weaknesses, lust does a great deal of the critical damage. In particular, the raw, slippery couplings of adultery leave silent, oozing wounds of craving and guilt; infidelity cuts at these characters with a double-edged sword. Accounts of desperate, doomed affairs frame the collection, and surface at persistent intervals within it, cleverly echoing the intermittent intensity of illicit sex which, along with its preponderance of sternums and spines and seepages and scents, contributes so much to an affair’s persistent excitement and disquiet. Here is obsession in its most irresistible and destructive form. Inevitably, people get hurt. In ‘If There Is No Shelter’, the tragic map of consequences is drawn with particularly creative intricacy. Harnessing the cataclysmic changes rendered by a well-known city’s devastating earthquake, Slaughter explores the complex intersections between fear, grief, exhaustion and denial, guilt and regret, in a wrecked cityscape of rubble and Portaloos where lovers and babies are dead and gone, husbands and families are crippled and needy, and there is no safe place left for body or soul.
In other stories, sexual hunger drives the inept tumblings of teenagers, leaving bruises and tears in the fragile skins of their innocence and reputations. In these still-shaping lives, the boundaries blur between discovery and desire, and between consent and conquest. At the far end of the scale, rape and abuse, as brutal and intimate as bayonets, drive jagged holes in girls that nothing can draw together again. Truly, there is no shelter; even the most luscious and libidinous of sexual interludes in this collection is tainted, since the lens through which we observe is already buckled, cinderous, stained with the residue of prior detonations.
What lust cannot damage, gluttony (from the Latin gluttire, ‘to gulp down or swallow’) does. Drugs and drinks are what keep most of the characters afloat, but there is invariably a damn good reason for the descent into dependency. In the provocative metafiction of ‘Point of View’, the narrator begins by announcing, ‘I am giving my character a drinking habit,’ then proceeds to delineate the decisions that go into the making of a definitive Slaughter protagonist, and the strata of loneliness and desperation destined to weigh upon a life which has ended without actually ending. The piece is a fascinating exploration of the complications of delivering a narrative of hurt, and the challenges of writing on the fine line between an exposition of human anguish and a diary of personal suffering. By taking the ‘I’ out of pain, by creating a third-person character who will bear the burden, or be flattened by it, the narrator (or is it the author? We and they become rather entangled on this point) can perhaps more ably communicate real experience without the risk of coming across as a complainer, without ‘sounding like a teenage girl’. Hence the character of Gabriella, fifty-one, strong, a fighter. But she can drink. She has a damn good reason, remember? In her case, the reason is a husband disabled by motor neuron disease. He is just one of too many broken bodies in these stories, immobilised spouses and sisters and sons whose personal agonies remain unarticulated, off-page. They serve simply as crashed smoking vehicles from which the protagonists, largely women, emerge, roaring like a Greek chorus, calling time on the half-lives that they have been conscripted to.
In his packed session at the Auckland Writers Festival last week, Neil Gaiman addressed the phenomenon of fiction’s resurgence in the Covid world. A search for respite, he proposed, is what has sent us back to books, and the escape fiction offers, with its opportunity to spend time in a different world than our own. It is the job of writers, Gaiman suggested, to provide such opportunities. Slaughter’s world holds out no such promise. It is no holiday destination, or exotic landscape, either. The stories in Devil’s Trumpet take place in locations we have all been, or sense that we have seen, before. For this, the author’s extraordinary observational exactitude is responsible, delivering the minutiae of each situation with such sharp sensory force that the scenes become immediately, intensely familiar to the reader, in all their dirt, danger or despair. ‘Warpaint’ is a story that takes this virtuosity to the extreme. The pub accommodation allocated to the aging rocker of the tale is viewed through her jaded eyes in forensic detail, from her bedroom’s ‘bolt-on sink with a brown mouth stamped Royal Doulton’, down the fire escape to ‘a tower of white plastic buckets, off-kilter with scraps’, and the ‘mops hinged onto outbuilding walls to bake dry, grey-rope, rot-flecked heads’, then through to the bar and the clientele she will entertain, who are ‘flocking in, trimmed with chem-straightened hair and jeans you couldn’t crowbar off.’ She briefly admires the barman, a ‘young hulk kissed by the rugby gods’ but knows he does not see her in return – she has reached ‘the invisible era’. The story teleported me back to the 80s, and to Sumner’s seedy Marine Tavern, where the Friday night live sessions brought whole convoys out from the city. I was with the stiletto crowd then, the silly girls who packed the Ladies’ to apply the ‘bullet hole of lipstick, dark clouds of blush,’ our ‘eyelids powdered by violet prisms.’ We all danced for the eyes of the bass guitarist but we were no match for the blonde singer old enough to be our mother, who looked down on us all. In the breaks, at the bar, she looked right through us. Thirty years later, Slaughter tells me why. And leaves nothing out.
At times, the collection’s vivid, visceral prose is so tightly clipped and pruned that it lifted me out of the narratives, forcing a pause for the unravelling of a rare collocation, or a particularly densely packed image. In combination with the relentless emotional bombardment that the characters endure, it was occasionally exhausting. But when it was all over, I found I was unprepared to leave; I wanted more.
The end of this collection arrives like the end of a war. Everyone left standing is supposed to go home, but nobody is intact, and nobody feels like they won anything. Which is perhaps as it should be. In Slaughter’s book, life is a battlefield. And although Devil’s Trumpet may boast no winners, survivors it has in spades.