Tuesday 16 July 2019

Poetic meditation on secret liaison at a crossroads

Fiction: My Coney Island Baby, Billy O'Callaghan, Jonathan Cape, paperback, 256 pages, €16

Vibrancy: Cork writer Billy O'Callaghan
Vibrancy: Cork writer Billy O'Callaghan
My Coney Island Baby by Billy O'Callaghan

Hilary A White

A couple walk the Coney Island promenade in a wintry gale, huddling in to each other as they walk past row after row of boarded-up stalls and amusements. Both are married but they have danced this waltz every month for 25 years, ever since they met in a bar and the stars aligned.

Michael is a native of Inishbofin, who, like so many of his generation, relocated to New York in search of a horizon broader than that offered by the wind-lashed Connemara island. Caitlin, meanwhile, is a lapsed writer whose married life is as stagnant and unaffectionate as Michael's, with little truly shared between her and her captain-of-industry husband.

Now in middle age, their lives have reached stasis as disappointment and inadequacy have calcified over the years. These arranged monthly encounters, however, conducted in hotel rooms and played out under the banner of something deeply loving, offer existential life support and the tenderness and intimacy that long abandoned their respective marriages.

This occasion will be somewhat different, mind you. Michael's wife Barbara has been diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis is not encouraging. Caitlin, meanwhile, is weighing up a move to another part of the country following her husband's announcement of a transfer. Things won't be the same once their clothes are back on and the outside world has to be faced up to.

Taking place over the course of a few hours in the company of these two polished pieces of driftwood, we are taken into the DNA of the tryst. With poeticism and aching sensitivity, Cork writer Billy O'Callaghan unknots the minute workings of these starved adulterous souls, the ghosts from their pasts that whisper in their ears as they hold one another and the stakes that are at play should this forbidden, undisclosed phantom of a relationship ever be rumbled or put out of commission.

The land they have cultivated together is still, to them, a place of starry-eyed regeneration, where they can talk "like people newly coupled because the ground between them had not yet muddied". And yet there is a "cold efficiency" to what they do, where despite each seeking to plumb the depths of the other after their lovemaking, there is an inherent limiting of expectations. Duty is now summoning them, and neither has the luxury of being able to refuse what needs facing up to. "Lovers, those that survive, learn to feed on scraps, to make the best of things, the best of everything."

We can take it that Graham Greene's The End of the Affair was a heaving soup of religion, war and sexual obsession that coursed with something venomous in its narrator. But under O'Callaghan's watch, reflecting on a secret liaison coming to a crucial crossroads, is an operation of forensic delicacy. There is great compassion for Michael and Caitlin, their transgression squared against more deep-rooted themes of middle age and the desperate need to claw on to love as the sun of life begins its slow decent.

It's unlikely that My Coney Island Baby is going to ever be dubbed the feel-good hit of 2019, what with its overcast naval-gazing and the viciously sad backstories of these two lives that O'Callaghan ushers into the fold in order to show us what is on the line when they emerge the other side of that dull hotel room.

But despite this pallor of inevitability, O'Callaghan somehow finds vibrant colour, sultry purples and burnt oranges, to paint with. A renowned short-story writer before debut novel The Dead House, he is capable of beguiling flourishes of beauty and humanity, all underscored with a lyrical finger-snap.

Images rendered here stick with you, such is the intensity that they shimmer with.

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