Monday 23 October 2017

Review: Fiction: Where Have You Been? by Joseph O’Connor

Harvill Secker, £16.99, hbk, 326 pages/ebook available
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

A return to the
short story:
Joseph O’Connor
A return to the short story: Joseph O’Connor

One of the better 1970s Hollywood directors, George Roy Hill, renowned for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, once told me humour was the natural voice of despair.

With Joseph O'Connor, humour more obliquely provides a cover for confronting readers with the darkness of the soul.

Behind an exhilarating array of sharp dialogue and biting one-liners worthy of Hugh Leonard, his fiction charts the fragility of relationships, the cruelty of chance and circumstance throwing people together only to shatter their lives, the nightmare of distrust and guilt stirred by memory, and the stark fear of separation and being left alone in the stillness of the night.

O'Connor introduced himself at 26 with a short story The Last of the Mohicans, which he submitted to New Irish Writing in 1988.

On dialling a London telephone number he'd given, I discovered he had been writing for several years without success and was on the point of giving up.

The Last of the Mohicans went on to win the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Award. Its likeable rogue Eddie Virago reappeared in his debut novel Cowboys and Indians as an archetypal antihero for the budding Ryanair generation.

O'Connor was hailed as the hottest comic writer of the moment for his collected newspaper columns The Secret World of the Irish Male, but he had other things in mind.

His play Red Roses for Me lifted the lid on a dysfunctional family forced together for a funeral. Each new novel was longer and blacker, culminating with the extraordinary famine ship saga Star of the Sea -- he was taken aback when it became an international bestseller -- and its sequel Redemption Falls, which was even darker.

Where Have You Been? is his first collection of short stories for 20 years and reasserts a mastery of the form that first drew me to his writing. It can be read in some ways as a companion to his longer fiction, and to his life in terms of its Dublin settings, in particular Glasthule where he grew up, and the recurring figure of a man hurt and haunted by the loss of a mother.

True to character, Eddie Virago returns to hog the limelight in Two Little Clouds, now ruling the roost in a Celtic Tiger property bubble, trying to protect his wild-boy image by pretending his wife has left him. "It was like being married to Roy Keane in a frock," he shrugs.

By contrast Orchard Street, Dawn jumps back in time to a New York Lower East Side tenement where the youngest daughter of an immigrant Irish couple -- perhaps they came over on Star of the Sea -- dies in her illiterate mother's embrace.

The unbearable poignancy of what was in 1869 a sadly routine trauma is encapsulated in a letter home, the simple words written down for the distraught illiterate mother by her husband to be read for her mother by a local priest: "I write with hard news and do not know how to say it. Our little daughter Agnes died on Wednesday the twentyfirst, and was buried in Calvary Cemetery. Our hearts are broken. There is nothing for me in the world . . ."

O'Connor's concern throughout this fine compassionate collection is with the ups and downs of coupling, and the baggage -- or with Eddie Virago "the cargo" -- each partner brings to an often impossible equation.

The concluding novella of the title -- an extract from which was published in the Irish Independent literary biannual Irish Writing Today -- revolves around a will-they-won't-they affair in which a dumped husband, made wary by the scars of a dysfunctional childhood, can't be sure whether a London production designer really fancies him or is just playing a game.

A separated husband in Death of a Civil Servant is beyond hope, torn by the grief for a dead baby that drove his wife from him, making a last drive into the Wicklow hills with his father before returning to an empty apartment where he has already left suicide notes against the kettle on the kitchen table.

In The Wexford Girl, a son revisiting the Glasthule of his childhood, where he lay in bed at night crying to himself as he listened to his parents fighting, remembers how his father tried to hide the hurt with bad jokes. "I'll tell you the truth, I don't like the word marriage. In fact marriage isn't a word, it's a whole fukken sentence."

Just one story, one of the best, is told through the eyes of a woman. In October-Coloured Weather, an English teacher who is terminally ill spends a night in a Dublin hotel before returning to a husband who is cheating on her with one of her former pupils. An American tourist guide, who "seemed like a man who could laugh without being cruel or superior, and she liked that about him", gets talking with her, and they talk into the night. "We never met before," he tells her.

"Tonight we met and talked. Five minutes either way it wouldn't have happened. But it did, see. That's the sacred moment. If there's a sacrament, that's it."

It's an epiphany that cuts to the heart of O'Connor's fiction, the fickleness of chance but also its miracle. And like the father in The Wexford Girl, he's not joking.

Where Have You Been? by Joseph O'Connor will be published by Harvill Secker on October 4 but will be in shops here from October 1.

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