Book: Pure Gold
Author: John Patrick McHugh
Publisher: New Island
Reviewer: Caoimhe White
Release Date: February 26 2021
With its opening story, ‘Bonfire’, John Patrick McHugh’s debut collection, Pure Gold (New Island), offers the reader a baptism of fire: as the story’s narrator and his friend turn to pyromania, McHugh engages in a blistering interrogation of grief, examining the hard truth that ‘the show must go on’ even in the face of great turmoil. From this first story, the reader is introduced to the disquiet that characterises each offering within the collection. For example, it pervades the title story, ‘Pure Gold’, which is thick with the bravado of late youth as it explores the lengths we go to to cover our own shame.
Indeed, the indiscretions of youth feature heavily in this collection, with ‘The First Real Time’ and ‘A Short Story’ detailing with bracing accuracy the anxieties of school days, and ‘Howya, Horse’ delving into the intersecting relationships of college students, each as brittle as the next. Youth is not McHugh’s only concern, however, as he turns his attention to ‘Hoarfrost’, a story which recounts a desperate attempt by a married couple to salvage their marriage.
Despite their differing content, these stories are all united by a propulsive tension. Each of McHugh’s characters appear on edge, as though close to being unhinged by their internal struggle; the reader’s role is to simply watch how this struggle manifests in the characters’ external world through McHugh’s writing.
A reader looking for a reprieve from the tension will not find any, and this collection is on the whole perhaps too dark and unforgiving for some: McHugh’s allusions to sexual misconduct in various guises are at times excruciating to read and few of the stories offer hope, or even release, in the aftermath of their central turmoil. In the absence of this hope, however, the reader is at least left with the awareness that McHugh has taken an unflinching look at humanity when it’s met with hardship, and has done it justice.
Pure Gold is available to purchase from the Gutter Bookshop here.