Review of Rock Black by Rob Stanton
"My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order."
This is how James Joyce explained the thinking behind his debut collection of interlinked short stories, Dubliners, published in 1907. Almost a century later, Rock Black, M. G. Sanchez's first work of fiction, also made up of interlinked short stories, has a similar diagnostic tendency, this time applied to Sanchez's native Gibraltar, seen in the late '80s and early '90s. This too is a 'centre of paralysis' and if Sanchez's work doesn't quite cover the gamut of 'childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life' it gains by its focus. All of Rock Black's protagonists are male, and most are caught at some point on a perilous spectrum between 'adolescence' and 'maturity', old to know they must stop drifting, but unsure of how to set aside booze, cheap talk, lost chances and lost loves (often symbolically - but never too symbolically - British) in order to do something more constructive; or what that would even be if they could. Their surroundings are part of the problem: Gibraltar is depicted as similarly unsure of its identity and position in the world, claimed by both Britain and Spain, culturally indebted to both and yet unloved and disrespected by Briton and Spaniard alike. Illicit attractions and distractions are available - binge drinking, macho camaraderie, trips to brothels on the Costa del Sol, smuggling - but the characters know, or become aware, that they are empty. Old supports, such as family or religion, are seen as hollow, whilst new ones, such as psychoanalysis, are vapid. The book's title derives from the security states laid out by Gibraltar Fortress HQ: 'Rock Red' being the highest state of alert, 'Rock Yellow' 'a state of increased vigilance' and 'Rock Black', in the words of the character explaining, 'the same old s**t as always'.
Despite all this, the majority of Sanchez's characters, including recurring alter ego Peter Rodriguez, seem forever poised on the verge of epiphany, of a seeing of other alternatives. In some of the book's most uplifting moments these possibilities take on an almost uncanny, supernatural edge, as a father amazingly puts aside his long-time alcoholism to become a jogger, an accidentally tuned-into radio show on addiction proves inspirational, an improbable magician can shrug off the jibes of his (tellingly, British) assailants to dispense stoical wisdom or the previously jaded Rodriguez can take seriously an elderly fisherman's tale of seeing a mermaid. Sanchez injects these moments skillfully into his narratives without ever swapping the stories' prevalent naturalism for magic realism. Even the one story that sets aside the realistic, 'Freefalling', is playful and down-to-earth in its allegorical overtones and fits right in. Escape, change, difference are not altogether impossible then, but the advent of their possibility is fleeting and easy to miss.
As a British reviewer, one wonders what readers in Gibraltar will make of this book. Will they be 'indifferent', as Joyce feared his fellow Irish would be? Will they be grateful that part of their past and culture has been rendered visible in literature for the first time? Or will they, like plenty of Joyce's initial readers, resent their dirty linen being aired in public? Whichever way, one hopes that more and more people will read it: it appears as a necessary corrective to a prolonged silence.
Rob Stanton was born in County Durham, raised in the Midlands, and educated in Cardiff and Leeds. He lives in the US with wife, daughter and cats. His poems and critical works have appeared in numerous online and print publications. The Method, his latest book of poems, was recently described by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rae Armantrout as a 'tour de force.'