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Book review: A Ball of Fire, John Montague (Bloomsbury, Rs. 299)

When Gwendolyn Brooks remarked that poetry was “life distilled”, she may have overlooked John Montague and his collection of short stories, A Ball of Fire, which, true to its name, comes alive in “a smothered explosion of color”. Using tight poetic prose that is still conversational and a rhetorical diction evocative of Yeats, Montague does not need the sustained tension of a full novel to make you mourn an actor when he dies; five pages will suffice.

Born in Depression-era Brooklyn to a father he can’t recall, separated from his siblings four years later and sent to an Irish farmhouse to live with his aunts, losing his mother young but knowing a string of lovely ladies through his college and teaching days in the 1960s and 1970s, ultimately marrying thrice, all the time grappling with the meaning of rebellion, sex and identity, Montague’s experiences show in his writing.

In many stories, there is a boy, a young man, a traveler or an unhappy old man constantly placed in a situation he hasn’t been in before, still doused in desires he left the cradle with. There is always a quest, too — to know what love can be devoid of sex, what history can be bereft of adventure, what death can be in the absence of life … most exemplified in the collection’s three longer pieces, The Lost Notebook, Death of a Chieftain and Three Last Things respectively, all constructed in fine detail with a masterful understanding of human nature.

In fact, The Lost Notebook overshadows all the stories that follow, except perhaps Three Last Things, with its portrayal of two characters’ groping exploration of freedom and immortality while still trapped in their adolescent visions of grandeur. Using the first person, Montague draws attention to a young Irish poet touring Paris during a summer when he meets a troubled young American woman, and there begins a petulant affair. As he fumbles in bed so does she fumble with her aspirations to be a painter. The metaphors in it are everything from sumptuous to galling – in sharp contrast to the more languorous yet still ambitious Death of a Chieftain — as the couple explores Paris, its museums, their paintings and sculptures, its tradition-laden streets brimming with opportunities for each to discover more about the other.

Despite the suggestion that sexual maturity has much to do with its artistic counterpart, the author keeps reminding you that they aren’t simply spanned by yearning. In fact, he often seems to reflect that the only true freedom that can be experienced in between birth and death is to be found in the bedroom. Montague alludes to this opinion in the ultimate Three Last Things, a profound meditation on what death could mean simply by virtue of being the end of a lifetime.

The other, shorter pieces are remarkable too, but just not as spectacular. A personal favorite is A Love Present, a story of a young boy who finds love residing in the proverbial last place that he’s looking, but still written with a warm conviction that makes you want to relive the episode. Another such tale is Sugarbush, I Love You So.

Ball of Fire holds you with stories that start and end similarly but leave you with hard-earned insights that soothe. The reader is bound to chance upon moments frothing with just the same emotions you remember experiencing in similar instances from your life. To this end, and in the company of Montague’s poetic penmanship, the book is unforgettable.

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I wrote this for The Hindu Literary Review under the title ‘Life distilled’. It was published online on August 3, 2013.