Saturday 17 August 2019

Irish writer's Lost male souls in search of redemption

Short stories - Greetings, Hero by Aiden O'Reilly, Honest Publishing, pbk, 322 pages, £13.99

Aiden O'Reilly creates a world of male alienation in his 15 short stories
Aiden O'Reilly creates a world of male alienation in his 15 short stories

John Boland

The title Frank O'Connor gave to his 1963 study of the short story was The Lonely Voice, its author noting that while the novel generally concerned itself with how people behaved and interacted in structured social milieus, the short story mostly focused on "submerged population groups" - in other words, on outsiders.

Such characters, O'Connor observed, were "outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society" and he suggested that in a characteristic short story there was "something we do not often find in the novel - an intense awareness of human loneliness". Indeed, he argued, the short story, whether dealing with "Gogol's clerks and Turgenev's serfs or Maupassant's prostitutes and Sherwood Anderson's provincials", "has never had a hero".

With this in mind, we can assume that the title of Aiden O'Reilly's debut collection is meant to be heavily ironic. Certainly there are no heroic acts performed by the almost exclusively male characters in its 15 stories, and precious few noble thoughts either. And they're definitely on the fringes of social norms, the unwordly Simon telling the narrator of 'The Laundry Key Complex': "It is an atomised society, people drifting from each other."

We have been in this land of displacement and male alienation before, notably in the stories of Waterford-born Philip Ó Ceallaigh, whose two striking collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse (2006) and The Pleasant Light of Day (2009) were also just as concerned with life beyond these shores as they were with local preoccupations.

Before opting for Dublin as his base, O'Reilly spent seven years in Germany and Poland, working in such diverse jobs as teacher, translator and building site worker, which presumably nurtured his empathy for lost male souls in search of an ill-defined identity that might give meaning to their lives. Women in these stories are often the resented enemy, the adulterous middle-aged narrator of 'Unfinished Business' confessing his "pathological inability to relate to women as sexual creatures".

Elsewhere, though, women are viewed only as sexual creatures, the Berlin-based narrator of 'Human Behaviour' repaying the young German woman who has befriended him by furtively doing inappropriate things with the contraceptive device she keeps in her bathroom before ending up in bed with her unfancied friend. "You're so strange," this latter young woman says, not knowing the half of it.

I was reminded here of the similarly alienated narrators of Glen Baxter's novels, who were also adrift in anonymous European settings, though at their best O'Reilly's stories have a distinctive personality of their own. However, at more than 300 pages, the book is too long; the ambitious title story in particular not justifying the 80 pages it takes to relate, while there are few misfires in which narrative clumsiness undermines a potentially intriguing initial set-up.

But I was very taken by 'Human Behaviour', 'Three Friends', 'Lost and Found', 'Unfinished Business' and 'Words Spoken', all of which conjured up recognisable situations and predicaments with such freshness as to make them seem startlingly new. And five outstanding stories out of 15 is impressive in a first collection.

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