Male Tears by Benjamin Myers review – men at the margins

The emphasis is on atmospherics in these dark short stories from the author of The Gallows Pole

Benjamin Myers’s fiction is concerned with people at the margins of society. His portrayal of Traveller culture in his 2012 novel, Pig Iron, won the inaugural Gordon Burn prize; 2017’s The Gallows Pole, about a band of counterfeiters in 18th-century Yorkshire, won the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. Male Tears, his first short-story collection, is likewise populated with outsiders and ne’er-do-wells. One story tells of a farmer’s bitter hatred of townies, while another features a sadistic gamekeeper who tortures animals. In “The Whip Hand” a fairground impresario gets mangled to death by his own waltzer; his psychopathic son assembles a posse of forced labourers – “a motley menagerie of men in various states of drunkenness and disrepair”, recruited in “smoky back rooms, parole-board halfway houses, gambling dens” – and has them build a monument in his memory.

Elsewhere a hyper-masculine ex-convict turns out to be a secret cross-dresser, and a man covers himself in paint after a row with his girlfriend – a weird cry for attention that backfires horribly. Other stories are slightly less lurid. Myers, a former music journalist, revisits his younger self in “The Folk Song Singer”, about an encounter between a journalist and a veteran pop star. Sizing up the critic, the singer observes: “They never change … Nervy and earnest … their conversation always undercut with a streak of almost confrontational pedantry.” The protagonist of “Saxophone Solos” is a washed-up writer who “clung on to his reputation … quite unaware that his readership had grown up and moved out of the city … while he festered in a damp house south of the river”.

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