Men come unstuck in Benjamin Myers’s new story collection. Whether in the stone age or the 70s, a fruit picker or an astronaut, they’re caught in traps of their own making. A farmer, dreaming of a foreign holiday, gets himself tangled up in his top-of-the-range potato picker, his foot “crushed and rolled like the last curl of a tube of toothpaste”; a gamekeeper is snared in his own cage; and in The Whip Hand, the heir to a fairground dynasty is crushed by the weight of his own ambition when he erects a hilltop monument to his late father, who died after getting stuck – that motif again – in the family’s most famous ride.
While horror is ever ready to intrude, Male Tears is varied in style. Many stories, such as a father’s three-paragraph reflection on ageing, last barely a page, but there’s also a digressively autofictional piece about having a panic attack at a Brueghel exhibition in Vienna. If many are straightforwardly conversational (such as Suburban Animals, whose narrator remembers a childhood friend with Down’s syndrome, targeted by the school bully), others only hint at what’s going on. There are open endings but also gotchas, as with the story about a labourer who, blessed with “the strength and stamina of 10 men”, fascinates his boss’s young nephew, who pictures what the man’s girlfriend must be like after spotting a dress hung up in his caravan.
Myers’s project – letting air out of ideas of what it means to be a man – often requires his protagonists to be killed or maimed, but not always. A story in which a male music journalist interviews a feted female folk singer highlights the journalist’s self-absorption by telling the story from both points of view so that we see how little he understands his subject (there’s probably an element of self-deprecation here – Myers was once a staff writer for Melody Maker).
The book’s epigraph comes from Germaine Greer: “The tragedy of machismo is that a man is never quite man enough.” In these stories, that’s a state of affairs to be observed from afar, worthy of satire or karmic comeuppance (all those accidents). Steve Hollyman’s brash new novel, Lairies, takes a different approach. Not for him the comforts of irony; instead, he gets uncomfortably cosy with his violent and bigoted cast to deliver an insider critique of masculine bravado.
Centred on the consequences of a nightclub fracas in a small Midlands town, it’s narrated by a series of male voices. There’s Ade, a jobless philosophy dropout who fancies himself a Nietzschean superman; call centre worker Colbeck, whose lust for random street violence is fuelled by his rage at a two-timing girlfriend; and Duncan, self-consciously beta to their alpha, with the air of a fall guy from the off as he ends up tailing them on a disastrous road trip in search of aggro.
A kind of helter-skelter whodunnit, Lairies draws suspense from Hollyman’s decision to not quite play fair with the reader by relying on the sly use of a character’s nickname to keep us in the dark as the action hurtles along via name-tagged point-of-view chapters. The gross-out description recalls Irvine Welsh: after a fight, Colbeck says his hands look like he’s “been at a fisting orgy with five menstruating anaemics”; two pages later, he says a relative’s tracheotomy scar “oozed viscous fluid like tired yellow spunk squeezed from an octogenarian prick”.
Like Welsh, Hollyman hangs his characters out to dry while using them for narrative fuel and flavour. His decision to inhabit them in the first person – or, in Colbeck’s second-person narration, daring you to walk in their bloodied shoes – is a risk. But the high-wire act reminds us that immersion is no less effective than observation as a way to understand the disappointment and pent-up longing both he and Myers portray as a man’s lot.
Male Tears by Benjamin Myers is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply