Professor Charles E. May: What Makes a Great Short Story? (No.2 ‘The Orphan and the Mob’ by Julian Gough)

Alex Linklater, associate editor of Prospect and founder of the National Short Story Prize (now the BBC National Short Story Award), has been quoted as asserting that short stories are “fundamentally distinct forms. Somewhere down the line, our literary culture forgot this and idly handed over its laurels to the novel. The National Short Story Prize is a reminder of what it is that only stories can do.”

I agree that the short story is a “fundamentally distinct form” and that there are certain things that only short stories can do. But it seems that no one dares to suggest what makes it distinct or what those “certain things” are. Just what is it that only short stories can do?

I suggest that the winner of the 2007 National Short Story Award, Julian Gough’s ‘The Orphan and the Mob,’ compels a discussion of this issue. Mark Lawson, chair of the 2007 judging panel, announced that the decision was unanimous, saying: “The comedy, energy and originality of both plot and voice set [Gough] ahead of the other contenders.”

What I would like to suggest in the following brief analysis is that in spite of the fact that Alex Linklater has said the National Short Story Prize is a reminder of what it is that only short stories can do, ‘The Orphan and the Mob’ did not win because it was an example of the short story as a “fundamentally distinct form,” but because it was an account of a funny event told in a funny way for a satirical purpose (the piece is available here).

Professor Flore Coulouma has published a rather detailed discussion of the genre issues raised by ‘The Orphan and the Mob’ in the Autumn 2014 issue of the Journal of the Short Story in English, which can be read in full here.

I liked reading ‘The Orphan and the Mob,’ not as a

short story, but as a tour de force comic introit

to a classic quest for identity of the picaro.

Coulouma discusses the Irish oral tradition, as well as the self reflexive tradition of Flann O’Brien and other Irish comic writers, to which Gough’s story belongs. Although it seems that ‘The Orphan and the Mob’ was originally written as a free-standing individual story, Gough later added it as a prologue to his novel Jude: Level 1. In the kind of academic sentence that makes many literature lovers grimace, Coulouma contends that what makes the story a “successful short story in its own right is precisely that it explicitly presents itself as a fragment from a longer narrative as well as from a broader type of discourse, thus offering us a representation of the fictional story as a necessarily polyphonic dialogic part of a greater whole—regardless of its length.” In other words, it is sort of a short story, albeit in a novelistic sort of way.

Gough has, it seems, disavowed the short story nature of ‘The Orphan and the Mob’ in favor of it placing it as a prologue to a picaresque novel, not only by attaching it to his novel, but also by describing it as “like the bit at the start of the Star Wars trilogy, where Luke Skywalker is working on his uncle’s farm, and then the planet’s destroyed, and he has to go off on his galactic quest and discover his destiny.”

I liked reading ‘The Orphan and the Mob,’ not as a short story, but as a tour de force comic introit to a classic quest for identity of the picaro. Filled with literary and historical allusions, the piece makes the reader laugh both at the overall satirical pokes and jokes at the expense of Ireland’s history and current dependence on the European Union. Gough likes a bawdy joke and seems to enjoy delivering one-liners. Granted, the individual comic “bits” work together to create the overall structure of the story, but each individual piece could stand alone.  In other words, what makes me enjoy the story is its comedy, sophomoric as it is: the crux of the plot depending on an adolescent’s need to take a piss and the satiric take on many Irish clichés of domineering lecherous priests, struggles for independence, ineffective heroes, and the many allusions to literary sources—all of which are interesting and amusing in themselves, but none of which are intrinsically bound up with the overall effect of the story. In other words, the story is no more important than just something to string the jokes and jibes on.

It is obvious that Gough’s choices for the story are calculated to make a satirical point and make us laugh. He is not, as more serious satirists such as George Saunders are, in the process of discovering anything, exploring anything, struggling with anything. He knows exactly what he wants to do, and he cold-bloodedly goes about it. Not that there is anything nefarious about that.  A good craftsman can be admired for his craft, and a good comic can earn lots of honest belly laughs and snide snickers. Shall we review a few?

First there is the opening sentence: “If I had urinated immediately after breakfast, the mob would never have burnt down the orphanage.”  And we know from this sentence that even though there is a mob and a destroyed orphanage, we are not to take either one seriously, for urinating is not a serious activity, even when Leopold Bloom is doing it, and even though Jude, the first-person narrator, can pronounce its philosophic importance: “Yet a full bladder distorts judgment and is an obstacle to understanding.”

It seems almost inevitable that the protagonist’s name is Jude, giving the reader the opportunity to identify his namesake with a Hardy hero or a Beatles song.

The second half of the story is dominated

by the mystery that often initiates the

picaresque tale—the mystery of origin.

The primary literary progenitor of the story is introduced when Jude finds the young orphans hiding under the skirts of the old priest Brother Thomond, for straw sticks out at all angles from his wild white hair—identifying him as a scarecrow. And we know that the most famous scarecrow in literature is the one from The Wizard of Oz. But the addition of two simple words “erect” and “stiffness” is enough to suggest, quite comically, of course, what the poor wee orphans are doing under that black skirt.  The introduction of a dog, albeit a huge one with the classical Greek name of Agamemnon, provides the Toto allusion. Dorothy and the tin man will appear later.

Of course, the center of the celebration, since this is a satire meant to poke fun at Ireland, is a bog hole, for what kind of country is it that can be famous for a hole in the ground? And thus, we are provided  the occasion of the story—the dedication of a visitor’s center for this, Ireland’s most famous bog hole, the bog hole where Eamon de Valera ”hid heroically” (a contradiction in terms, of course) from the British and had his famous vision of Irish maidens dancing barefoot (a reference to de Valera’s famous “The Ireland We Dream of” speech on Radio Eireann on St. Patrick’s Day, 1943.)

(A personal aside, if you don’t mind: The year my family and I lived in Ireland, we were neighbors with a lovely, rotund, elderly lady, who once showed us a clump of bushes near where we lived where de Valera supposed once hid from the British—although she did not use the word “heroically”—I wonder how many other places the great Dev hid.)

And yes, it is funny stuff that the speaker of the day is Brunhilde de Valera, the great granddaughter of de Valera’s cousin, who is the minister for “beef, culture and the islands.” The allusions to the European Union, Germany, Brussels, the eight lane M8 motorway from Dublin, the huge auto park, and the grand Interpretative Centre funded by the EU, are all easy enough targets for satire, as are the dates of failed rebellions and names of heroes that every Irish schoolboy and girl knows—Wolfe Tone in 1798, Robert Emmet in 1803, the failed rebellion of 1916, and, in an inevitable reductio fashion, 1988, the year of the football victory over England.  All of this leading up to the proclamation by Brunhilde, “Never forget that a vision of Ireland came out of Dev’s Hole.” Typical sophomoric, amateurish comic nonsense about flatulence while Jude struggles with his bladder.

Of course, this all culminates with the ultimate reductio of Dev’s hole to a toilet: “Thus the great curtain parted, to reveal me urinating into Dev’s Hole, into the very source of the sacred spring of Irish nationalism: the headwater, the holy well, the font of our nation.”  As if to say, “piss on it.”  And for one more bit of nonsense: Jude turns around and pisses on Brunhilde.

With this climactic urination, the release of the plot tension, if we may mix a metaphor, that has held the story together so far, we shift to a different kind of story—the destruction of the orphanage, as if the urination has caused all hell to break loose.

The second half of the story is dominated by the mystery that often initiates the picaresque tale—the mystery of origin. The plot point here is to postpone revealing the secret as long as possible and then to scuttle the revelation completely by a mock tragedy—in this case the impaling of the scarecrow priest on a coat hook and the transformation of the head priest Brother Madrigal into the tin man of the Wizard of Oz being drenched by the molten lead from the roof of the orphanage. Finally, there is the transformation of Jude into Dorothy, who skips off down the yellow brick road in her blue dress, saying quietly to herself “There is no place like home.”

And of course, the one song that plays on the old phonograph in the orphanage is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Then the story ends with a final literary allusion, the lines from Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” as Jude looks back to see “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower.  And Agamemnon dead.”  It had to be this poem, of course, for how many school boys have chortled about it as a pornographic barnyard fantasy?

With all due respect to Alex Linklater, I do not think that ‘The Orphan and the Mob’ is a reminder of what only stories can do. Whereas a great short story can be read, and should be read, even must be read, many times, ‘The Orphan and the Mob’ is a story that, to use one of Gough’s words, “deliquesces” each subsequent time it is read.  It’s a funny story. But jokes are usually only funny the first time we hear them.


Prof. Charles E. May is professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author/editor of ten books, including ‘Short Story Theories’, ‘New Short Story Theories, The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice’, ‘I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies’, and over 200 articles and reviews on the short story. He publishes weekly essays on the blog Reading the Short Story

Submit an article to TSS.

Support TSS Publishing by subscribing to our limited edition chapbooks