Stuart Evers's deft debut collection is transatlantic in its influences and obsessions. Raymond Carver and Alice Munro echo throughout these short, sad stories about cigarettes. Two of the ten tales are set in the US, another leaps between London and Reno. Even Swindon is described as bearing "an eerie, almost American sadness".
Yet the sadness that threatens to swamp the lonely and nicotine-stained characters in Evers's stories is of a very British kind. He serves up the sort of defeated urban nostalgia that you find in the novels of Patrick Hamilton or Henry Green, and in songs by Morrissey.
The artist girlfriend of the narrator in "Real Work" creates an installation, "a portrait of the building in which we lived, but inside each of the windows was a tiny crime scene". Evers, too, parts lace curtains to reveal tragedy - not the gory murders in the artwork, but everyday incidents of loss that are all the more moving for being commonplace. Told in stark and distant voices, the stories risk disappearing into silent despair. Indeed, "Eclipse", the paranoid imaginings of a new mother suffering from post-natal depression, struggles to rise above a melancholy whisper. Much stronger is the earlier story "Things Seem So Far Away, Here" - similarly told by a woman on the verge of a breakdown - where the tendrils of feeling that stretch between the narrator, her brother and her niece are so taut that you risk breaking them by turning the page.
Evers is unashamed of depicting strong feelings, and this wallowing in emotion occasionally descends into kitsch. It is an unrelentingly bleak world that we see through the smoke. Characters struggle to form or to leave relationships; love withers under the glare of city lights; a pair of old men die on either side of the Atlantic, linked only by a series of empty coincidences. The humour is black as tar. That Evers manages to sustain our interest in these wretched lives is tribute to his skill. His writing is like the cigarette smoke that suffuses it - insidious and addictive.
There is something both alluring and doom-laden about cigarettes, and they operate as a metaphor for the ill-fated lives in this collection. It is fitting that the last story, "The Final Cigarette", should be about people smoking doggedly as they die of lung cancer. Smoking is held up as a heroic act, from the Falklands veteran who smokes a fag for each of his fallen comrades in "Some Great Project" to the put-upon narrator of "Real Work" who leaves his girlfriend with the words: "I'm just popping out for cigarettes." Ten Stories About Smoking attempts to restore to smoking the glamour it exuded in black-and-white films, in detective stories, in our teenage years.
The literary establishment's uncomfortable relationship with short fiction has remained unchanged over the past couple of years. In 2009 there were strong debuts from Wells Tower and David Vann; 2010 brought excellent, widely praised collections from Lydia Davis and Yiyun Li, and Damon Galgut even managed to sneak In a Strange Room on to the Booker shortlist. Yet the form still seems to harbour an inferiority complex.
Galgut's dressing up of the three stories he initially published in the Paris Review mirrored Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes in trying to straddle the divide between short fiction and the novel. It is a publishing commonplace that short stories don't sell, and so publishers are desperate to dress them up as novels. Ten Stories About Smoking, taking a different tack, is presented in "striking stand-out boxed packaging to appeal to a design-conscious reader". But Evers's collection deserves better than to be displayed on glass coffee tables in Hoxton warehouse conversions. This exquisite slice of Anglo-Americana deserves to be read. l
Alex Preston writes the New Statesman's City and Finance column