The middle age of the Irish male
FICTION:Twenty years on, the vivid, wasteful creatures of ‘The Secret World of the Irish Male’ are isolated, helpless and largely at a loss
Where Have You Been? Stories and a Novella By Joseph O’Connor, Harvill Secker, 326pp. £12.99
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, it’s almost 20 years since Joseph O’Connor published The Secret World of the Irish Male, the first of his three very popular and funny books on the subject. And to take us back even further, Two Little Clouds, the opening story of O’Connor’s new work of fiction, features Eddie Virago, protagonist of the author’s first novel, Cowboys and Indians, and daddy – or better make that laddy – of them all.
No doubt those lads are still out there. But O’Connor is evidently no longer interested in them. Time has moved on. Things aren’t fun any more. And while the author’s gift for both the one-liner and what’s referred to in the story Death of a Civil Servant as “smartarsery” are still in excellent working order, the skull beneath the skin keeps breaking through here, baring its teeth in an ungenial grin that takes quite an effort on the part of all concerned, author included, to face down.
As for Eddie, he’s back in Dublin, “flogging flats for a living” and a married man, even though he denies the fact in a forlornly overstated attempt to reclaim his laddishness. As its title suggests, this story draws on Joyce’s A Little Cloud – in the author’s words, it’s “a response” to it. Now it’s the born-again Dubliner, Eddie, who plays the part of Ignatius Gallaher, the crude, bombastic, self-styled man of the world, while the narrator, settled with wife and kids of his own in Chiswick, is Little Chandler. Like the majority of the pieces here, this one has a date, 2007, and it may be that Eddie’s reluctance to acknowledge the changes in his life is in the nature of a tainted breath of a more general air of irresponsibility then prevailing. Whatever about that, like its prototype, the story takes the drinking bout to illustrate contrasting styles of maleness but also as a prelude to a sobering aftermath.
Though not the collection’s strongest story, Two Little Clouds does make an effective introductory piece. The Irish male has arrived at middle age and has the crises and the emotional scars to prove it. The creature he once was, vivid and wasteful and suffused with the present, is grey at heart, isolated, helpless, backwards-looking and, to use a phrase that has more than an individual resonance, largely at a loss. The entropic nature both of things in general and of the characters’ own resources have to be faced at last, and the most obvious spheres of growth that might have offset awareness of falling and declining – most notably love, home, children – have turned out to be as frail and temporary as little clouds. And as though to suggest that this is how it goes not only for recent generations there’s Orchard Street, Dawn, a story of Irish emigrant parents mourning the death of one of their small children in a lower Manhattan tenement in 1869. “The family in Orchard Street, Dawn existed,” we are told, but the end of the story sees them, too, in the light of their passage, “remembered by the air of the immigrant city” only.