The Rule of Last Clear Chance

by Judith McCormack
ISBN: 0889842647

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A Review of: The Rule of Last Clear Chance
by Helen McLean

The characters in Judith McCormack's short story collection The Rule of Last Clear Chance are human beings rich in spirit-people who can open themselves fully to the "achy, high-wire joy" that follows the birth of a child, or the pleasure of so simple a thing as "one of those sleepy, sunny weekends when the drone of lawnmowers on crewcut grass make it seem as if time is eddying around, instead of proceeding in the usual brisk line." But they also have the courage to face pain, as when a miscarriage occurs, or a beloved husband dies in a freak accident, or when forced to confront the sort of disillusionment an aging mother endures when she acknowledges that her adored son has "grown up to be a real jerk."
A prevailing theme throughout these tales is the frailty and powerlessness of human beings in the face of nature's inscrutable workings and the hazards that chance tosses like hand-grenades into the middle of their lives. In each of two separate stories about pregnancy, uncaring Fate snaps her fingers; one woman unexpectedly produces twins, while another sees her hopes end in "corkscrews of red ink hanging in the water in the toilet." In "Plural", teenage twins get drunk on beer and survive behaviour that could could easily have resulted in their deaths, while in "Choke" a man dining in a restaurant asphyxiates on a bit of potato, although he might have survived if the ambulance rushing to his aid hadn't crashed into a taxi whose driver failed to hear its siren because "he had turned up the radio in his empty cab so that he could sing along with Aerosmith at the top of his lungs."
McCormack's stories are laced with humour and wit, and even in darker moments the interior thoughts and dialogues of her characters are frequently very funny. In the story that gives the book its title, junior lawyer Andrea, who has been poring over legal books, wants to take a break because "half of her brain synapses are curled into little balls and sucking their fingers, while the other half would like to go drinking." Her colleague and lover, Liam, is a pale man with translucent skin; "If you look hard enough, he says, you can probably see my pancreas." Andrea knows her relationship with Liam is unwise, because of "his career path, which is almost as substantial as a third person." She suspects that he is sleeping with her in part "because she is handy and quick, a snack of a relationship, something to nibble on between gulps of law and ambition."
Frank, manager of the fish counter in a supermarket, is less articulate and harbours thoughts that are more simply expressed, but what swirls in his head is equally funny. He had supposed that getting older was going to be a gradual process. "This is it. Get ready. It's about to start." But instead age has come "in sudden jerks, like a used car hiccuping down the street." He had "bobbed along for years on a cushion of optimism, a cushion stuffed with vague expectations," and when that cushion began to thin out "it reminded him of a label he had seen on a life jacket once: this device loses buoyancy over time."
"Plural" is narrated by one of a pair of twin boys who examines the phenomenon of twinhood with wonderful humour. "Could we tell which were our own arms and legs? Did we know that there was an other in there?" The boys have been told so often that twins have a secret language that "we thought that maybe we'd had one, and had just forgotten about it." The narrator-twin is convinced that if there is something wrong with his brother it would be his fault, or at least his responsibility to fix it. "There was only a finite amount of personhood between us, and if he was missing something, it must be because I had taken it."
McCormack commands the English language the way Pascal Roget handles the piano keys-with an apparent effortlessness in which technique is so solid as to be a given. In these stories optimistic individuals may become fearful and intelligent ones do stupid things, but the author presents them always with unpatronising tenderness.

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