Friday, 2 January 2015

What a Life!: Selected Short Stories by J B Priestley Review


What a Life! was part of a large bundle of books from my pop at Christmas this year. Besides reading and enjoying JB Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls in high school, I have no interest in reading anything else by him ever again but my dad’s a big fan and he wants to “educate” me on Priestley’s writing, so I decided to give his chosen offering a shot. Otherwise I’d never have read this because, unfortunately but expectedly, it sucks! 

There are seven short stories in this small collection: What a Life!, Going Up?, Adventure, Handel and the Racket, An Arabian Night in Park Lane, The Taxi and the Star, and The Demon King, and I can’t say I really liked any of them. 

The title story is about not judging people by their appearances - wow, what an original message! A bartender in a sleepy London hotel looks like a boring man but it turns out he’s had a pretty interesting life in the criminal underworld. 

In Going Up?, the message is that if a man tricks a woman into liking you, she totally won’t be offended by your duplicity. Adventure is about a young man who tries slumming with the working class rogues of the seedy underworld and finds he doesn’t much like it and that he was taking his ordinary existence for granted. 

Priestley really likes his Yorkshire character, Mr Hebblethwaite, who’s just a simple country man who goes to the city but shows his intelligence, wit, taste, etc. is the match of the sophisticated city folk. There’s even some unexpected action as he takes on some armed would-be kidnappers and beats them! Cor, blimey guv’nor - an Edwardian James Bond! 

The Demon King sees the Devil take a starring role in a rural pantomime. He replaces the lead actor as The Demon King character, magical things start happening, the actor’s “costume” looks realistically scary, but no one twigs that it’s actually the Devil himself except for this reader who called it the instant Priestley hinted something was up. 

It’s clear Priestley’s very fond of writing positively about the working class, giving them the starring roles and they always come out on top. That’s fine but kind of a banal detail. Because what I really look for, over political motivations, is a good story and I didn’t find any here. When I finished each story, I was surprised at how underwhelming it was and how easily pleased 1930s audiences must’ve been! That or maybe Priestley’s entertainments don’t speak to modern readers. 

The stories themselves are written well though they’re just a bit too simplistic. The Demon King is a good example of telegraphing the reveal well ahead of the ending and then delivering it as predicted. It makes for such tedious reading when you can figure out the writer’s tricks ahead of time. And if they’re not predictable, they’re corny/dull. The love lives of ordinary working people, the rudeness of city folk, these aren’t subjects that interest me in the slightest! 

My dad reads Priestley for the language - he says the writing in a book is what really satisfies him. I can appreciate that but I’m a story-driven reader so even if the execution is a bit sloppy, I can enjoy a book if it entertains. And What a Life!, while well-written, didn’t entertain at all.

What A Life!: Selected Short Stories

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