Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

In Exile A Collection of Short Stories by Billie O'Callaghan

In Exile  A Collection of Short Stories by Billie O'Callaghan  (2008, 223 pages)

March 1 to March 31
Billie O'Callaghan

Event Resources-Links to lots of short stories, from classics to brand new works.   There are lots of ways to participate-just contact me with your ideas

You can read Billy O'Callaghan's short story "Waiting" here.
I give Billy my great thanks for allowing me to share this story with my readers.

A very interesting (lot of great reading ideas and insight into Irish literature and history) can be found in  the Q and A Session of Billy O'Callaghan.

Posting on a collection of short stories presents more of a challenge, to me at least, than posting on a novel.  In Exile by Billy O'Callaghan is a diverse and fascinating collection of twenty-one short stories.  For me I find the best way to post on a collection of short stories, both in terms of benefiting possible readers or buyers of the collection and respecting the writer, is to post in some detail on a representative number of the stories and then make some general observations on the collection and offer my thoughts to prospective readers.   To those who want the bottom line first, I would say that I totally endorse these stories, they are from the dark side at times, some are profoundly sad, all show great sincerity and compassion.

This is the second collection of short stories by Billy O'Callaghan, Cork City, that I have posted on for ISSM3.  I would not have read a second collection if I did not greatly admire the first one, In Too Deep and other short stories (my post is here).    The only book on the short story worth buying is The Lonely Voice - A Study of the Short Story by another man from Cork, Frank O'Connor.  The main contentions of O'Connor was that the modern short story is uniquely, as distinct from novels, about sub-marginalized groups, people who have no one to speak for them.  He also said the short story as a literary genre is uniquely fit to portray loneliness.  I will let more erudite people than I debate whether O'Connor was right or not.  I suspect it is an unresolved dispute but for sure his claims are interesting and illuminating.  O'Callagan's stories are totally in the tradition of the works O'Connor talks about in his book.  In the  stories I will talk about we have an unwed homeless teenage mother, a professional killer, a forty year old fisherman living  alone on a small Irish island, a musician  headed for an early death from heroin, an old man living for his next glass of whiskey, and  a thirty year old man leaving his Irish home tomorrow to work in London know he will probably never see his father again.

"A Killer Job"

"A Killer Job" is an interesting look into the mind set and the life of a professional killer.  What is striking about this story is how well balanced and normal seming is the man.  He made his name with a big time kill of a mob leader.   He charges very high fees, from one kill he can live two years.  He lives a simple frugal life style.  He is in his late forties and he knows one of these days his reflexes will slow down and he will have to quit.  There are mysteries about him.  He travels around a good bit so I do not think we know how people go about hiring him.  We know nothing about what lead him to this life.  He loves his work, he loves killing people and it seems like he would almost do it for free were it not for the pride he takes in his high status as a professional killer.  He likes women, preferring women his own age, and he often finds them in hotel bars.  There is a fascinating interlude involving his long term relationship with a widow who owns a B and B where he once stayed for a job.  "A Killer Job" is a bright look into a dark mind, what is scary is he seems to embody lots of positive values:  hard work, thrift, and pride.  He is not loud and does not spend big when he gets paid.  The story closes making us wish we knew more about him and that is a testimony to the skill of O'Callaghan.  

"Tourist Season"

"He leaned over his glass and filled his lungs. ‘Like the
thatch, so.’ I am allowed to sit with him only because he
knows that I will buy him drink. I did what was expected
of me, telling him to drink up, and calling with a nod to
Costigan behind the counter. Costigan unfolded his thick
forearms and pulled a tot from the upturned bottle on the
wall, but Howlett has a routine fixed by years of practice
and he drank the first whiskey only when he had the full
assurance of the second sitting safely before him"

"Tourist Season" is set on a small island, off the coast from Cork, Ireland (I think that is where it is but for sure in Ireland).   People once made their living from fishing.  Fishing is no longer what it used to be because the big international fishing fleets working just outside the legal limit, have way reduced the amount of fish to be head.   Our narrator, forty years old and never married, still makes a bare living from it supplying the restaurants and B and B s of the Island.  He sees tourists from Dublin and Germany and he thinks about their lives and how they look at him as something to photograph.  He is terribly lonely and he longs for the old days and he does rely on whiskey to get him through it.  "Tourist Season" is a very sad story.   We feel the sorrow of the man over a woman he loved and lost.  He knows nothing ever is going to happen for him now.

This is a wonderful story about the love of old Ireland, the culture of  the small islands which once were considered "real Ireland" and now are tourist traps".

"A Blue Note"

"This was taking up a saxophone and blowing until nothing else mattered because there was nothing else, no ends and no beginnings, just the melodies that he scraped from the air, godly things already, and then turned them from the perfectly mediocre to the ridiculously sublime."

Most writers would have a have a hard time making something original with the notion of a heroin addicted musician burning himself out and dying way to young.  It is a cliche of movies and TV.   Billy O'Callaghan manages to rise above these risks and make it a very original and creative story from the premise.   The story is told in the first person by the musicians best friend.  I think this story captures somehow the feeling of the friend watching Jake destroy himself.  We get a feel for the love of heroin in this story, we feel its power in these lines:

"I remember how he shot up on the living-room floor that day or night, a girl who seemed just then like she was all that and more helping the needle on when his flesh or his fingers flinched in last resistance. She had the kind of smile that was at once dirty and hungry, a bedtime smile made sour by her flashing eyes and leering teeth".

I will say on this once two decades ago I had a very close friend, Stephen R.  All he had to do to become very rich was to outlive his father but he died from a heroin overdose years before his father did.   From knowing him, I respect the verisimilitude  of the descriptions of shooting up in which taking heroin shots from a woman is like she is penetrating you, not a woman that loves you but a messenger from Kali.

"The Dying Breed"

"He was just another old man back when I knew him, washed out and holding up one corner of Mac’s bar, fishing for drinks. Jack. Whiskey was his poison, and if I was flushed I’d help him out, but mostly he had to make do with beer, just like the rest of us."

The stories of In Exile are often about forms of addiction, maybe to the adrenalin rush killing someone brings, maybe to the past, or to heroin.  In "The Dying Breed" we get to the roots of the Irish addiction, whiskey.  There is an old saying that God invented whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world, but it did not stop them from ruling the literary world.  Old men hang out in pubs waiting for the young ones to buy them a shot, in exchange for which they will talk to them and tell them "yes the past was better and no it is not your fault".  This is a very deep story about an old man in a pub.

"In Exile"

I always tend to expect a bit more from the title story in a collection and "In Exile" does not disappoint   There are lots of forms of exile.  You can exile yourself with whiskey or heroin or in a nostalgia for the past just as much as you can do it by moving.  "In Exile" is the story of a man from Cape Clear Island (Wikipedia says it  now has about 100 residents many of whom speak a distinct Irish dialect.  Most living by fishing or are supported by relatives off the island)   This story has many of the elements I have found in the Irish short story.   The lead character's father died when he was young, killed while working on a fishing boat, the brother than raised him is drowning in a whiskey river.   He himself lives and works in Dublin.   He longs for the simple culture of the old days but he also knows he could never live there again.  The story also lets us see how harsh and dangerous working on a fishing boat was.

"All That Glitters"

"It was our last night together, maybe the last time we would ever see one other again. In the morning I was leaving for Dublin and the ferry to England. I knew what he felt about it but I knew what I felt, too. He was an old man, and the land was a dead thing these days. I would be thirty in May, and if I went now, there was still a chance for me. Maybe. I had dreams about America"

"All That Glitters" is a heart breaking story, a masterpiece of suppressed emotion.  It is the story of the last time a thirty year old man, leaving Ireland the next day for London, will probably ever see his seventy year old father.   The man knows his father does not want him to go.  They drink whiskey together.  I have learned enough from reading Irish literature to know that sharing a whiskey is an important ritual and often makes possible communication that otherwise would not happen.  The father tells his son something he never knew about him, that he also went to London as a young man to try to make money for the family but he returned.  I want to quote from the story a bit so you can feel the wonder of the words of O'Callaghan.

"We shook hands, an awkward gesture but less awkward than a hug. ‘England’s a hard place for the Irish,’ he said, watching the sky for the threat of rain. There was none.

‘Don’t stay there too long.’
‘’Tis America I’m heading for,’ I said. ‘Soon as I can work up my fare.’
The sun had cleared the horizon and found its own part of the sky. Its touch brought the green and the brown to life. My father nodded. In the distant west the Atlantic burned, stung yellow by the bright late dawn light. ‘All that glitters is not gold,’ he said.
I thought about it. ‘I know,’ I said, but really I didn’t. Not then.
We shook hands again and I turned and started up the road. I was trying to remember everything just as it was at that moment: the gravel road; the overgrown dikes; the sweep and sway of the roadside tree."

I am not sure if the emotional reserve of the father would cause some to see him as falling under the category of a weak or missing father (one of my leitmotifs this month) but the story is very moving and profoundly sad.

"No Room At the Inn"

"To try the shelters, though the shelters are usually full at winter time; to walk away the hours of Eve to Day, perhaps stealing minutes of sleep in some other vacant doorway. Maybe they will be all right, mother and child, maybe there is still a way up from here, or a way out. Maybe the infant boy will grow up to be a man, a somebody, a king. Maybe he will change the world; it happened once before, so why not again?"

The title of this story makes us think of the story of the birth of Jesus.  As Mary was about to give birth, she and Joseph were on a journey, at every stop they were told "No Room At The Inn".   This story takes place in the Christmas season.  It is about a new mother, almost a child herself, 17 or so standing in a door way on a busy street with a paper cup for coins.  To most she is invisible, or something they force themselves not to notice.  This story is sad beyond sad made even sadder by my knowing I see people just like this on the streets of Manila all the time, in fact I imagine much more than in Ireland.  Or maybe I should say they are all around me but I don't see them or don't want to.
Three great very moving very sad pages of a story played out millions and millions of times everyday.

I totally endorse this collection of short stories.  I have said several times one of my biggest personal goals for ISSM was to discover new to me writers whose careers I will try to follow as well as I can from the others side of the world.  Billy O'Callaghan is for sure such a writer.   

Author Data (from his Webpage)

I was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974, and am the author of two short story collections: ‘In Exile’ (2008) and ‘In Too Deep’ (2009), both published by the Mercier Press.
In 2010, I was the recipient of an Arts Council of Ireland Bursary Award for Literature. My stories have won the 2005 George A. Birmingham Short Story Award, the 2006 Lunch Hour Stories Prize and the 2007 Molly Keane Creative Writing Award, and have been short-listed for many more prizes, including the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Award, the RTE Radio 1 Francis MacManus Short Story Award, the Faulkner/Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Glimmer Train Open Fiction Award and the Writing Spirit Award. I was also been short-listed in three consecutive years, 2008- 2010, for the RTE Radio 1 P.J. O’Connor Award for Drama.
I am currently at work on my first novel, tentatively entitled ‘Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby,’ and am in the process of compiling a new collection of stories.
Over the past decade, my work has appeared in more than seventy literary journals and magazines around the world, including: Absinthe: New European Writing, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Bellevue Literary Review, Confrontation, Crannóg, First City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ireland’s Own, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative Magazine, Pearl, Pilvax (Hungary), the Southeast Review, Southword, Underground Voices, Verbal Magazine (Northern Ireland), Versal (Holland), Waccamaw and Yuan Yang: a Journal of Hong Kong and International Writing. New work is forthcoming in the Fiddlehead.

Billy has authorized me to publish a second of his short stories and I will do that soon.  He is at work on a third collection of short stories and I hope to post on that soon.  I for sure hope to read and post on a lot more of his work.

Mel u

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