Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

“The Boatman” - A Short Story by Billie O’Callaghan - in The Irish Times, February 3, 2017

I first began to read Billie O’Callaghan during ISSM III in March of 2013.  I have posted upon both of his short story collections (pictured above), and his debut novel The Dead House.  Additionally he kindly allowed me to publish one of his short stories on The Reading Life.  O’Callaghan does not just write great short stories, he knows and loves the form and has a deep to the bone feeling for Ireland. Reading his wide ranging Q and A session will give you lots of reading suggestions.  I have also reviewed his short story 

collections for the award wining publication The Lakeview Journal of the Arts and Literature.  Obviously I would not devote this much time an attention to a writer I did not see as highly talented and insightful. 

“The Boatman” (you may read it at the link above) opens on a day no parent ever wants to face, the funeral of your only child.  It is four in the morning, a father is waiting for his brother in law to arrive.  Together they will dig the grave.
The father can barely recall his marriage before his daughter was born.  Everything resolved around her.  His wife has not been able to stop crying.  The man cannot bring himself to cry or even hug his wife.  

This is a really moving story.  I don’t want to tell to much, just a bit more.

The father, a boatman, has come to love Reading.  I love 

how the boatman talks about reading:

“have always enjoyed reading, but it is a pleasure that has deepened in recent years. Sleep comes hard for me; if I can get three hours then I’ll count that as a decent night. So, after Margaret has gone to bed, and so that I won’t disturb her by burning a light, I’ll sit up in the kitchen and for a while get into a book, in order to put myself down. I’ve lived this way since before we were married, and I always have an old paperback in my pocket. It’s about filling the empty moments, I think, blocking out the spaces between acts. Sometimes, when I am out in the boat and after I have cast my nets, there’ll be a period of calm, and I’ll have a chance to sit a while and simply watch the sky, and to enjoy the flashing colours of the light on the water, and to ponder. 

Summer days start early, and two or three miles out to sea the only sounds to be had are often those of the calm swell lapping at the sides of the boat and maybe the occasional scream of a gull or gannet or the splash of something missed by the eye breaking the surface for air before going back under.
I’ll breathe then and look up from the page, and I’ll feel at once both at home and violently dislocated because my mind has its own way of lingering in far-off lands. A thousand stories crowd my head, maybe a hundred thousand, and I understand if I think about it that I’ve made worlds of the places in which those stories play out every bit as much as their creator has; I’ve flushed them with the reek and music of life, I’ve filled them with voices. My Texas Panhandle, my Tartar Steppe, my Society Islands exist for me as vividly as they will for those who have actually felt the grass and dirt and dust of such places beneath their feet. Thoughts like that flip reality into the chaos of a 

spinning coin so that in the same instant everything is true and nothing is. Our surround is there as we perceive it, and our dead are at once gone and everywhere.”

This is a very Irish story universally applicable.  O’Callaghan takes us underneath the all encompsssing Catholic hold on the culture, you can see this in the narrator’s thoughts on his late father:

“He attended Mass because he’d been brought up to do so, the same as everyone else on our island, mumbling the Catholic prayers that we’d all been taught by heart, the strings of words in two languages and stripped of meaning or worth in either one. But anyone who knew him knew that his heart beat for other things. Superstitions, reading signs everywhere, counting particular types of birds at certain times of year, listening out for frogs in the ditches or the wailing of vixens in the night, watching the ruts in the sand, always feeling the air for omens. And, in between, quietly musing about the beautiful details of the world and how they must have come into being, and where certain traits in people came from, and talents. He knew the sea like it had 

been forged with him in mind, knew the tides and currents and where the reefs lay, and when the shoals of mackerel or herring would come and into what waters, as if the hundreds of his line who’d learned the waves inch by inch had educated him through blood and by some unwritten right, gifting him the knowledge”

This is what I meant when I said O’Callaghan had a to the bones depth of feeling for Ireland.

I loved this story.  Of course it made me think about what no father of three daughters cares to contemplate. As Irish Stories often are, it focuses on death, shows the emotionally reserved nature of the Irish, makes use of natural symbolism and there Is Whiskey.

Billy O'Callaghan was born in Cork in 1974, and is the author of three previous short story collections: In Exile (2008) and In Too Deep (2009), both published by the Mercier Press, and The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind 
(2013) published by New Island Books, the title story of which earned him the 2013 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award for Short Story of the Year.
The recipient of literature bursaries from the Arts Council in 2010 and the Cork County Council in 2015 among several other honours, including the Molly Keane Award and the George A. Birmingham Award, his work has been broadcast on RTE Radio One's Book On One, Sunday Miscellany and the Francis MacManus Awards series. He has also been short-listed on four occasions for the RTE/P.J. O'Connor Award for Radio Drama.
Over the past fifteen years, his short stories have appeared in some ninety literary magazines and journals around the world, including: Absinthe: New European Writing, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the Bellevue Literary Review, Bliza, Confrontation, the Fiddlehead, the Forge Magazine, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Kenyon Review, the Kyoto Journal, London Magazine, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative Magazine, the Southeast Review, Southword, Versal, and Yuan Yang: a Journal of Hong Kong and International Writing. New work is forthcoming in Salamander, the Emerson Review and Valparaiso Fiction Review. He also contributes regular book reviews to the Irish Examiner.
Billy won second place in the 2017 Costa Short Story Awards for his story The Boatman..  from O’Brien Press

I hope to follow his work for years and I think we can count on him being featured during ISSM IX in March 2019 and hopefully many years beyond.

Mel u

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