Recycled Glass isn’t a bad title for Fred McGavran’s second short story collection. The eleven tales contained within are brightly-coloured and angular, and come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. Some are smooth to the touch and translucent… while others are more opaque or sharp around the edges. Generally speaking, though, each little nugget of glass represents a witty, slightly strange, sometimes melancholy voyage into the unknown and the unpredictable.
Indeed, McGavran is at his best when he lets reality take a back seat. The first story, “Watching Time”, sees a man with a broken wristwatch drift loose from the flow of time altogether. Yes, it’s possible that it might all be a hallucination caused by the gentleman’s medication, but it’s much more fun to buy into the conceit that a mild-mannered pensioner has suddenly found himself adrift in the fourth dimension – especially when his visions of ancient empires and long-concluded wars start meshing with his present-day existence in a fairly average retirement home.
Other stories are a little more grounded, both narratively and temporally. “The Man Who Ran Away From The Sea”, for example, relates a tale that could for all intents and purposes be true. The protagonist, scarred in his youth by an encounter with the unforgiving sea, spends his life in close proximity to (but mortally terrified of) water. His eventual, somewhat unitended, conquering of this fear brings the tale to a satisfying conclusion. Despite not having the same surreal magic that you find scattered through the rest of Recycled Glass, the story is pleasantly entertaining, and bears all the other hallmarks of McGavran’s work, from a middle-aged protagonist with a military past, to hints of legal trouble on the horizon.
The story I enjoyed the least, ironically, was the titular one. “Recycled Glass” sings the virtues of recycled glass countertops – one fine specimen of which is due to be installed in the narrator’s kitchen as part of a seemingly never-ending overhaul. When the miraculously beautiful countertop arrives, however, it appears that there’s a startling price for its beauty. Although just as odd and engaging as the other stories, “Recycled Glass” never quite adds up. There are plenty of times when one is able to sit back and wonder why the characters are behaving the way they are, and the ending feels as though it runs out of momentum rather than boiling up into a climax.
That said, McGavran recovers momentum with the very next story – “Death Without Taxes” is, intriguingly, a retelling of an earlier tale from the collection, “Larson Bennett And The Flight Into Egypt”. This earlier tale examines the chaos that ensues when the extended family of a soon-to-die billionaire descend on his hospital bed, frantic over the massive taxes that will be levied on his estate should he die before the end of the year. In “Death Without Taxes” the situation is reversed, and the same family are instead cheering the dying man on towards the finish line – should he live beyond the end of the year, most of his estate will be seized by the government. This playful approach to narrative is typical of McGavran, and it’s a pleasure to read a story that spools out in two so completely differnet ways.
Perhaps that’s enough to give you a flavour of the kind of strangeness you’ll find in the pages of Recycled Glass. These stories are an odd combination of mild and bizarre, domestic and yet otherworldly. McGavran’s style is simple and straightforward, favouring plot over elegant writing – but nonetheless he does have an excellent ear for dialogue. Each story raised a smile – usually several. This is a gentle, well-crafted collection of stories, most of which firmly hit home. If you enjoyed McGavran’s first collection, or if you’re new to his work altogether, you’d do well to give Recycled Glass a try.