At the Rising of the Moon. Dermot Somers. Baton Wicks, London. 208 pages. Paperback.
Most climbing literature comes from climbers who write. Dermot Somers, however, sounds like a writer who also happens to climb. The distinction turns on two factors, both of them easy to find in this collection of ten short stories. One is his relation to language. Of course, fiction allows for a freer play of language than non-fiction. But Somers displays such relish for the surprising metaphor, the vivid but unusual image, and the right word that the genre seems to matter. Even when this delight, this urge to write, leads Somers to risk excess, it seems more a foible than a fault. Perhaps one example from the longest story, “Lightning in the Dark,” will serve to make both points.
Tony woke to the sound of Kathmandu rasping like a glass-cutter at the hotel window. The last traces of darkness were being scraped from the city releasing the exact cacophony sleep had drowned the night before, as if day were a nonstop affair in the street which never actually ceased, but was subdued by bouts of darkness.… The torn window-mesh was designed to let mosquitoes in and sieve sanity out.
This sense of playing with the materials at hand frequently extends beyond the words themselves to the level of the scene. In “A Tale of Spendthrift Innocence,” the narrator and his partner are following an independent (and marginally competent) French duo up the north face of the Dru. When Henri is on the verge of a giant uncontrolled pendulum into the side of a pillar, Somers momentarily sees
Laurel and Hardy mullocking the piano up the thousand steps all over again. There was something simultaneously disastrous and invincible about this pair—the rubber-bones of roughhouse comedy. I felt that if Henri took his hundred-foot swing and pancaked onto a rock he would simply raise his little bowler hat of a helmet, measure the lump on his head, stalk up the rope, and punch Jacques on the nose, who would promptly somersault a hundred feet down the north face only to spring back like a Jacques-in-the-box, and …
The second factor which sets Somers’ work off from the bulk of climbing literature is the role of climbing. In fact, three of these stories have nothing to do with climbing at all, and in several of the others climbing is only something that happens in the background. When climbing plays a larger role, the stories remain primarily about the characters—their perceptions, feelings, failings, and interactions with others. Somers’ climbers climb the way Smith runs in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner or the way Eddie Felson plays pool in The Hustler. Even so, Somers can vividly portray both the way climbing feels and the way climbers feel. Standard climbing literature, on the other hand, even the fiction that has sprouted up in recent years, is more grounded in action and drama with comparatively little suggestion of the complexity of life outside of climbing.
Somers has a considerable range. “Kumari’s House" is a story as dark as an Alpine hut. “John Paul II” is hilarious. “Stone Boat” constructs a myth. “The Singer” is a song the singer could have sung. Given this range and Somers’ approach to writing, it is not surprising, or even disappointing, that some of the stories are quite a bit better than others. It’s like climbing. If a particular route does not offer all one had hoped, the next one probably will. And like climbing, although I do not know exactly what to expect, I look forward to more encounters with Somers’ work.