Up The Short Story

Introduction to THE STREET

a collection of short stories by Gerry Adams

By Jimmy Breslin

These streets in Gerry Adams's stories are extraordinarily narrow. They are lined with tiny houses that are crowded with people who live silent, desperate lives that suddenly and dramatically explode into brightness with this one moment that makes a short story.

In the story, Does He Take Sugar? there is a little boy with Down's Syndrome who at the dinner table finally tells how he was able to keep another boy quiet during a Christmas pantomime.

"I told him I would knock his balls in if he didn't stop messing about."

At this instant, when the boy speaks for the only time without stuttering, Gerry Adams fits the requirements of the short story that have been posted forever by the master of the form, Sean O'Faolain, of Killiney Hill Road, Killiney:

"A short story is like a kite. You send it up in the air and then there comes a moment when the air catches the kite and it plays at the end of the string and gives this delightful shimmer. Then it is gone. And it is in this one moment that the short story also ends. To proceed is ruin."

Gerry Adams stops all stories on time. Reading them, he instantly fills the yearning for a time when the short story was the literary form for the superior writers in America. Once, a writer sending in a short story to the Saturday Evening Post or Collier's or Cosmopolitan was placing his work amidst that of Hemingway, Faulkner, Saroyan. When the magazines closed, the American writers were so dense that they felt that this meant the short story, too, was gone. Yet the short story always seemed best for America, where life is lived on the swift. Years living beside a brook in England produce these interminable novels that are read by nobody. But the short story is rapid and compressed and gets to the end when it should.

Therefore, it is only natural that a writer from Belfast, in cool air and in a life much more rapid than it appears to the eye, should bring to Americans the form we instinctively know and like the most, the short story.

Mr. Adams leaves his life of politics almost entirely out in the back someplace and reminds us of virtually none of it. Instead, he tells us about an old bank guard, paid to keep the front of the bank clear, and a bum on the street who creeps along the sidewalk to the window line of the bank.

As presented in news stories, Northern Ireland is so shrouded in vapors that Americans merely wait for an understandable story about something else to come on.

And all the time the people of Belfast get up in the morning and start another day of life in a place that is, as the people in Gerry Adams's stories began talking, not much further away than the street next to you.

The Belfast that I know is the one Gerry Adams writes about. He sees in the people these problems and traits that cause the excitement of recognition. In reading theses stories, I knew the place was as close as the next page.

I am in Belfast one Saturday morning when the Pope is visiting the Republic of Ireland, which is to the south. I am in the Royal Crown Bar on the Shankhill Road. This is a bar for Protestant beer drinkers, horse bettors, and the odd gunman. The Catholics are the mortal enemies. The streets are covered with banners attacking the Pope of Rome. "No Pope Here!"

And here on television in this crowded Protestant bar is the Pope of Rome, loud and sonorous, delivering a long sermon at a huge outdoor mass down in Dublin. I am in the bar so I can hear people talk. They all glance at the television once in a while, but without emotion. They then go back to their conversation, which was totally about sports. The television is so loud that I can't hear the people talking. I grow bold and reach up and try to change the channel.

"Yup!" the bartender shouted. "Leave it be. The racing comes on at half twelve."

The Pope talked on and the barful of people waited patiently for him to be gone and the first race to be on.

When Adams writes of the city of Derry, I am riding into the city on the first day that I ever saw it, in a gray wet Sunday afternoon. Coming down the hill, I suddenly see this city behind a high medieval wall and then I ride through the gate and into the town and here on the wall in large letters is the inscription: Sara Is A Fucking Hussy.

And I am on any street in New York.

I first came to Derry in the '60s and the politics were fierce and then the violence began and nobody knew it was going to last so long. Twenty-five years, as this is written in the spring of 1993. Yet through all the years of shrill speeches and disheartening violence, the scene I remember is one that belonged in one of the old dusty houses in Richmond Hill, in Queens, in New York City.

The old man, stiff from a stroke, sat in the living-room chair and told anybody who entered:

"The four crimes crying out to God for vengeance are abuse of a working man. Withholding the wages of working man. Murder. And sodomy!"

Here, then, are young men strolling back from Charlie Watterson's pub on the shoulder of the Black Mountain, with the dusk slowly settling on the city below them and the sea mists mothering Belfast Lough. This story is set in Belfast all right, but it is about life everywhere, and it is placed in the great form that has nearly vanished in America, the short story.

Copyright © 1993 by Jimmy Breslin.

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Mr. Breslin, the quintessential New York City newspaperman, is a columnist for Newsday.

He is the author of numerous novels, including:

The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight
How the Good Guys Finally Won
Forsaking All Others
World Without End, Amen
Damon Runyon