An Uneven Debut – Lucas Smith reviews The Rattler and other stories by A.S. Patrić. Spineless Wonders 2011.

A.S. Patrić has done the rounds of our little magazines and even co-edits an online little mag, Verity LA. He has paid his dues and The Rattler, his first book, is the uneven result. Short, abortive prose poems full of imprecise syntax and breathless gushing sit alongside thoughtful, subtle and carefully nuanced writing.

“Movement and Noise” portrays the death of a young girl but then retreats to the inner life of a boy who lives on her street. The ending returns to the death with astonishing power. Some much needed silliness, which after all is the source of seriousness, is provided by Anais Nin and June Miller bickering in Melbourne suburbia in “Ducks”

“Baby Shoes” is a subtle, very brief story about the inspiration behind Hemingway’s famous six word short story, (“For sale, baby shoes, never worn”). Hemingway is referred to only as ‘the Yankee’ and the implications of the story are allowed to hit the reader gradually. The aunt and uncle of Santiago, who will become the old fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. Here, Patric’s literary meta-referencing shines. The Yankee tells the couple that he has found what he needed for his story and then leaves. The story ends and we are left with exactly what we needed and no more.

The apex of the collection is “Some Kind of Blues”, a reflection on ethnic origins that manages to avoid clichés of migration and generational culture clash. “The question was still being asked among the children at my school. What are you?…Those massacres and rapes were who I was, because the television informed me that the Serbs were responsible for all the evils of those wars and I was a Serb.” I assume by his name that Patrić has Serbian ancestry. If so he is admirably honest, if not he has a penetrating imagination.

But too many stories are marred by forced profundity, an unfortunate byproduct of this powerful imagination. “The Frame” provides an example: “Greeks gaze into empty coffee cups and look into the smudge of chaos like scientists who stare through their microscopes at a smear of cells—but they’re the same stains. Accidents of birth, followed by accidents of life, then accidents of death.” Tell me something I don’t know.

Inexact grammar frequently halts the reader’s rhythm. Here is one of numerous examples: “he had a smile on his face. And an erection.” On his face? It doesn’t seem likely but that’s what those words say. Replace the full stop with a comma and the ambiguity is removed. To paraphrase Clive James, writers should never demand that their readers do most of the heavy thinking. Sentences like the above do not ingratiate a writer to his readers.

As one character says, “he knew every raindrop by its name. Did he think that’s smart like he thought I am sometimes, or is it as stupid as it sounds to me. You can’t be sure. Can’t be sure of anything.” This holds true for literature. Is this grammar artistic or just bad? Is this sentence, because said in a character’s voice, meant to be a non sequitur? Is the author cleverly playing off the notion of set in stone definitions or does he not know what words mean? You just can’t be sure.

The title story (and by far the longest) is the flat, undercooked tale of Atticus, a retired tram driver and aspiring writer. Patrić tries to wring meaning out of it and unite the collection by alluding to previous stories (Anais Nin and June Miller get a run), but the idea feels forced rather than organic. His literary ambition is limitless and his anger is on a hair-trigger but Atticus never quite feels like a real person. Which is fine, but he never quite feels like an overtly symbolic character either.

“Atticus was standing in the Writing Reference section in the bookstore. Atticus already had every book on the shelf worth owning. Not that he’d read every one of those at home, but he’d started them all and had an idea of what they all contained. That imparted an immense feeling of poised potential.”

“The Rattler” does not seem to be in the least autobiographical, but ‘poised potential,’ besides being a redundancy, is exactly what A.S. Patrić has.

Spineless Wonders, the publisher of The Rattler is a new NT-based press and they deserve praise for taking a punt on the short story form but I have one cheap shot to throw at them. The book features a blurb from “Les Murray, poet and editor, Quadrant”. Is Spineless Wonders trying to distinguish our greatest living poet from the soccer commentator of the same name or do they think their target audience needs a primer? Sorry.


Lucas Smith is a writer living in Melbourne. He has been published in The Australian Book Review, New Matilda, Eureka Street and The Lifted Brow.

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