Thompson, Barry Lee. Broken Rules and Other Stories. Transit Lounge, 2020. RRP $29.99. 240pp. ISBN: 9781925760552
There’s something gently comforting about Barry Lee Thompson’s collection of short stories Broken Rules and Other Stories that seems to wrap around you as you read and pull you into the world that the characters inhabit.
Perhaps it’s because Thompson was born and bred in Liverpool, UK— and many of these stories are set in the working class community in which he grew up—that it strikes such a chord. Having grown up in similar circumstances, albeit in the north east rather than north west, it was a pleasure to be taken back to the terraces, communities and vibrant characters of working class Britain.
Class, despite what some may tell you, is still very much prevalent in modern society; yet few works of literature are published that depict working class life in the way this book does. Published is the key word there, no doubt many with settings such as these never see the light of day, as it’s widely understood that favour falls on representations of other community spaces. More often than not, when working class lives are represented in literature, those of the larger cities such as London or Birmingham; the northern powerhouses and surrounding villages that feed them with life are all too often overlooked.
Perhaps it’s Thompson’s roots in this culture or perhaps it’s his skill as a writer—more likely both—that enables him to take even the simplest of words and turn them into something startlingly clear. In ‘Their Cruel Routines’ a young man presses his mother to remember someone who insulted him as a child.
‘No,’ said Steven. ‘That’s not it. This man was disconnected from us. There was a formal air. You weren’t friends. You wore a stiff coat, like a plain carpet.’ (11)
Take a moment to consider that last sentence; the simplicity of it and what it makes you think of. This is where Thompson’s skill lies, in expertly using language to conjure images from linguistic austerity. It’s refreshing, the way he tells it like it is, and there’s a kind of joyous satisfaction that comes from the combination of words he uses. Thompson does this again and again, weaving stories of young men, mostly, coming to terms with their sexuality. These boys and men are marginalised in an already marginalised space as a result of being both working class and gay. The descriptions of their burgeoning sexual understanding are simple, beautiful and open. In ‘The Ministry Man’, a young schoolboy fantasises about a man visiting his school.
I was disappointed that my cigarette was almost finished. I drew on the last of it, right to the filter, chemical-tasting and harshly hot; when I was sure he was watching, I dropped it to the ground and made a show of crushing it with my shoe. I put my hands into my pockets and touched the tops of my legs for reassurance. (23)
This theme of grounding oneself in the body—of connecting physically with the self as a form of reassurance, identity and affirmation—is something that appears throughout the collection. In this book, male physicality is not a mirror of toxic masculine ideals of physical prowess, ego and dominance. Instead it is gentle sexuality, discovery and curiosity about the forms and shapes that men’s bodies make.
The biggest threat seems to stem from the representation of mothers in these stories; women are presented as domineering, suffocating and uncomforting matriarchs who demand more and more of their struggling sons. Nurture is symbolised in the father figure: a more gentle, understanding and less restrictive figure.
I tried to picture her chasing me in these gardens. Round the fountain, one way then the other, splashing and laughing. But the image wouldn’t come. It was impossible to imagine my mother high or carefree or reckless in blue jeans. (53)
‘I slid off the couch and stood at the doorway. I walked down the hall to visit my father in his study. He opened his arms when I came in, and I went over and leaned into his thigh. He put down his pen and took off his glasses and grabbed the sides of my face in his dry warm hands, and kissed the top of my hair. (167)
The first quote is from ‘The Americans’ and the second is from ‘Broken Rules’. There is a sense that the males in this book are free or seeking freedom, working to be able to love as they would choose without being subject to prejudice and disgust.
The standout story in this collection is short but powerful, and a clear intelligence lies in the mundanity of it. In ‘Careering’ a young boy goes to see a careers advisor who asks him to ‘picture the environment’ (128) he’d like to work in when he leaves school. What follows is a lesson in storytelling; the young boy has a clear understanding of what will happen to him as a member of the working class and tells of a mundane and tedious office job he expects to get, complete with the social misfortunes of his imaginary colleagues. Not only is his tale a comment on the limitations of the working world for people from certain communities, but also on the fact that this child is clearly a gifted storyteller: creative, astute, imaginative and witty; yet the careers advisor fails to notice it at all.
Broken Rules and Other Stories may be a trip down memory lane for some, for others it could open up old wounds from their own experiences with sexuality. For many it will be an engaging, gentle and thought-provoking read. This is a very accomplished collection by a gifted writer and is well worth reading.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.