We Know What We Are – Russ Litten (Obliterati Press, 2018)
This debut short story collection from novelist Russ Litten is, to paraphrase Yeats, a thing of terrible beauty. This flip-side look at the “city of culture” from which the author hails does not hold back.
Horror, sorrow and desperation are mixed through these tales with dark comedy, powerful language and vignettes of bleak lives as butter is in a cake.
Litten’s writing is sharp, sparse and as pointed as a nib. Other reviewers have made comparisons to Carver and Bukowski – and these are not unfair or indeed too exaggerated.
In Blade, a parallel tale of a dirty, unlovable homeless couple living their awful lives in the shadow of a giant art exhibit (a windfarm blade) sets you off in your discovery of Hull 2017 – and not one some of the snake-oil purveyors of “culture” would recognise or indeed want you to see.
But this Hull writer can make you find something to love in the bleakest of souls and places – and when you have found that something, he builds upon it.
You find empathy with a hapless drug dealer in Christmas is Magic. In Working Away, you weep (and indeed gasp as I did) for the wicked, swift, awful vengeance visited upon a Scouse gangster’s moll.
There’s powerful dark comedy in The Last of the Redskins and The Bell – stories that are not only cleverly written but also wittily titled.
There are fifteen stories in all in this superlative collection brought to us by Obliterati Press, a small indie press punching well above its weight in a righteous fight to give voice to writers for whom Radio 4 talking heads often weep crocodile tears.
This publishing house is as deserving of success as its writers and deserve plaudits in equal measure.
Litten’s work in this genre is clearly masterful and merits the comparisons mentioned earlier.
As Litten allowed me to intrude in lives laid bare by the most able of tale-tellers another short story writer sprung to my mind.
One who is a million miles and a hundred or so years away at first glance perhaps – Guy de Maupassant.
Like de Maupassant, Litten makes you both empathise and sympathise with characters, whom at first glance, you are keen to hate – as classically illustrated by the French author in his perhaps most famous story, Boule de Suif (Ball of Fat) ... in which the fat, peasant, crude courtesan proves to be the most humane, and indeed valuable, of all characters travelling together with the ensemble of her “betters” by horse-drawn coach, in what is a master-class of observation of human frailty, cruelty and kindness.
These are factors that also permeate Litten’s work.
He too takes ugly characters and highlights the ‘love’ that so few can find, or even care to search for. And when you find “it”– he leaves you wanting to find more.
Robert Burns said, ‘O wad power the gift to gie us to see oursels as ithers sees us.’
For me that Burns quote sums up the duty of the writer, to be the eyes that allow us to “see oursels”. I have no that Litten fulfils this duty in a manner that would make the “Heaven-taught ploughboy” – one of our first and leading working class writers – proud.
As for Russ Litten: We know who he is – he’s one of ours.
We Know What We Are (Paperback 240pp, Obliterati Press, 2018)