|Apr/May 2017 Reviews & Interviews|
The Burning Ground
Bloomsbury. 2017. 182 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 6478 7.
Lindstrom listened but only heard the words the Old Man chose to emphasize:
"Signs of struggle... we think is blood... mother's jewels... no note, yet..."
And then the emphasis that focused Lindstrom's attention,
"Bas Roderigues found her door kicked clean off its hinges..."
This collection of short stories by Adam O'Riordan ranges widely through a variety of characters and events, some dramatic and some seemingly ordinary. In the story from which the above quotation is taken, Adella, whose kidnappers Lindstrom is tasked with finding, is not, as he knows from personal experience, an innocent young girl. Nor is Jesus Porfirio, the man he contacts in order to find her, the seemingly mild, apron-clad, shelf-stacking storeholder he seems to be.
In this and in other pieces in the book, O'Riordan unfolds his stories deftly, catching the background and personality of his characters through incidents, conversations, and thoughts. There are eight stories. A father tentatively makes contact with his estranged teenage son. A journalist remembers his first interview, as a 14-year-old, with a high-flying financier, and subsequent interviews as his own career blossoms and that of the financier crashes. A long-distance love affair has a Londoner flying to Los Angeles for meetings with a woman whose career commitments often causes unexpected absences.
In "Wave-Riding Giants," an elderly man, confined by a broken pelvis to his room in a "Senior Housing Facility" watches people on the boardwalk and beach at Paloma through antique binoculars "heavy as a candlepin bowling ball" and is reminded of the ones he used in wartime convoys. He recalls "the hours in the fire-room, the smell of hot lube and combustion fumes coming through the vent shafts," and he remembers his patriotic pride at signing on for war service and his parents attending his swearing in ceremony. He recalls family stories about the exploits of his Russian grandmother during an earlier war. And he thinks of his early days in Los Angeles and the war-time horror stories told by the young man who was his good friend at that time. Through his wife, Dolores, he meets some of the "wave-riding giants"—the surfers at Malibu who "know how to live." And he lovingly recalls the beauty of the hand-built, white cedar surfboard he crafted for one of these men. There is also a secret hinted at in this story that he never revealed to Dolores.
What O'Riordan excels at is memories—fragments of the past that lie dormant and surface at unexpected moments, just as the web-like rash from a past allergy to penicillin does in the artist in the title story, "The Burning Ground." This man's memories of the married woman with whom he had an affair are prompted by the very expensive paint-brushes she had given him in their first year of their secret meetings and which he had used ever since. When she decides that the affair is over and his agent arranges a one-year artist's residency for him in Los Angeles, his career takes off and he decides to stay in America. The brushes are his last, painful link with his memories of their parting, and their end is as colorful as the pigments they have conveyed to his canvases.
In his acknowledgements, Adam O'Riordan thanks William Body, "who suggested it might be an idea to write a whole book about Los Angeles." As an English writer, O'Riordan compromises by linking some of his characters to London and California, and his knowledge of both adds a worldly dimension to his tales. This can also be fun, too, as his final tale, "Magda's a Dancer," neatly demonstrates. It is written as a conversation between four friends, and since three of the group are or have been entertainers, it is almost like a film script. Julia and Harry, who are "itinerant Brits" and who are clearly new to Californian culture, describe some of their most bizarre experiences, and Zack and Magda, who are American, joke with them and tell them something about their own lives and their own reasons for moving from New York to Los Angeles. O'Riordan is a skilful storyteller, and the variety of moods and formats he uses is impressive. As in this last tale, he seems to me to get the language differences, the banter and the thoughts, revelations and ambitions of his characters just right.