- 03 Mar 21
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like a lot of the people who live on Galway man McHugh’s imagined island off the coast of Mayo, the lives of whom he chronicles in this debut short story collection, Pure Gold. I don’t like them at all, but I do like the way McHugh writes about them.
Brothers Adrian and Mattie don’t sound like great company on a Christmas night spent staggering from door to home town hostelry door in ‘Twelve Pubs’ and that’s before their glassing of young Cooney over some girl that had no interest in the first place is recounted. Then you remember you’ve already heard tell of this, back in the book’s title track, ‘Pure Gold’. The two main characters of that story, Ziggy and Dicey, aren’t exactly the kind of fellas you might invite around for tea either, but they’re as saints compared with the two arseholes - Dec and Con - that they unfortunately run into while loaded down with the bags of cans. It all very nearly ends badly for Dicey, although he's no innocent, exposing as he does his supposed mate's weakness in front of the bullies.
The younger kids of the island are little better, although at least the boy who kills a hare and lights fires in ‘Bonfire’ has the recent loss of his mother as some sort of excuse, which isn’t something you can say for Studzy, pushing over old women and dashing his pal's hopes in the accurately-named ‘A Short Story’.
The titular gee-gee let loose at the house party in ‘Howya, Horse’ is one - albeit unlikely - thing, but the real animal is no-hoper Cotter, who is determined to drag Marian down with him. Those who have managed to get out and start new lives in college – like the horse-headbutting Tara – might be doing better than Cotter, but they're nearly as easy to dislike.
It wouldn't surprise me to hear you tutting at this review, written - as it apparently is - by a bitter auld lad who hates everyone who's even a day younger than he is and, to be fair, you’re at least half right. I'll damn myself further by stating that while there's a lot to admire in ‘The First Real Time’ with its awkwardly accurate recounting of a cherry being lost that only outright liars will claim not to recognise, the best stories here deal with more mature emotions and situations, where the characters have a few miles on the clock.
The aforementioned ‘A Short Story’ swims into deeper waters when the narrator, years later, mulls over what happened to his pal Studzy. Should Annette go all the way at the swinger’s ball in ‘Hoarfrost’ after her husband Frank has strayed? In between the inane chat about the weather, we see a woman fighting with the memory of what she might be about to tear down. Knowing that you've got to "scrap for love", she tries to drown her doubts in as much wine as she can get.
As good as that one is, ‘Bury It’ is better again. Ada navigates the aftermath of her partner Murray's sudden death. She's left alone in the house that he bought when he ”had discovered his Eden in this gunky soil and its hardy, black-faced sheep, in the scabbing wind and rain”. Canine fanciers are advised to proceed with caution but this is a powerful examination of grief and loss.
While the whole book is flecked with sure and skilful touches - like time's arrow being flung out the window for the horsey house party - it is these fine stories in particular that mark McHugh as a talent to watch. Mind you, he probably needs to catch the next ferry away from the old gang.