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Daragh Fleming burst onto the literary scene with his debut collection of short stories in 2019. The Book of Revelations was an engaging and readable collection with a distinct voice that made it such a memorable collection. Fleming’s second collection of short stories If You are Reading This Then Drink Water had a lot to live up to.
From the outset there is no doubt that the second collection cements him as a distinctive voice in the Irish Short Story scene.
If You are Reading This Then Drink Water is both very well written and very accessible. You’d think that these are two characteristics that would be commonly found together. Unfortunately this is not so. From the opening line of the current collection the reader feel comfortable, it is like listening to an old friend:
Scents of heavy, flirtatious diesel were the olfactory backdrop to New York, New York. For me, the urgency of the city was its defining characteristic.
The opening story, The Bus to Boston, is a strange mix of the old and the new. From images of hitchhiking across the US, to the Greyhound Bus Depot, to taking an Uber. The narrator meets two guys on the Bus and is dragged into a conversation about crack and Satanism and is prepared to make a run for it when he eventually gets to Boston only to have his expectations somewhat overturned. It is a slightly haunting story with seems to have a threat hovering throughout and we are never really sure how it is going to end.
As with his first collection, the stories here vary without losing that distinctive voice. The Magpie Apologist is a slightly absurd tale of a man who is able to talk to Pigeons:
It was only as he approached the hoards of pigeons that he understood; It wasn’t the voices of people he was hearing, it was the chattering of wild pigeons. The park sounded like an exciting cocktail party.
Omniscient Nostril Rupture is another story which takes a slightly absurd turn but which still has a grain of truth running through it:
What people think is unfiltered, unedited. It’s real. It’s what they truly, and initially believe. It’s their truth. Joe knew what most people really thought of him, whether he liked it or not.
The narrator is ‘afflicted’ with the ability to hear the thoughts of others. As you can imagine this can have some positives but for the most part it just leads to too much information which threatens to drown the individual in a sea of opinion.
Many of the stories are set in the writer’s home town of Cork with others set in places which vary from Boston to Dublin to the West of Ireland and the Antarctic. Place becomes an important part of each of the stories and the author has a great skill at placing the reader in each of these locations and making them feel like they know the place as if they have visited it themselves. Finally, it is the distinctive nature of the voice which links all of these stories together, a voice that is honest and sincere and has much to say.
One character from the first collection returns here. Jay Zeus who wakes up after a night drinking wine in New York and who is still living up to his rather unusual name. We also meet a range of characters who are all very individual but who seem familiar to the reader: even Norman Gordonson and Pedro the Colder Retriever.
If You are Reading This Then Drink Water is an excellent collection of stories. Some of characters and the way in which the Fleming placed the reader in a very specific location with ease reminded me of Kevin Barry. There is definitely a sense that the writer has developed his skills as a story teller and has become more confident without losing any of the authenticity which we saw in the first collection.