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.
That story focuses on a mother, but generally Where Have You Been? dwells mostly on fathers, the difficulty of becoming one and the difficulty of being one. Often these difficulties are seen in the context of troublesome marriages, which tends to be what the stories’ elderly males had, or broken marriages, which is typical of their protagonist sons, if protagonist is not too strong a word for such an angst-ridden group. And their lovelessness and isolation have a counterpart in the dead-end quality of their professional lives. Senan Mulvey, the eponymous official of Death of a Civil Servant, brings to his plans to kill himself a dedication and meticulousness that his work has long failed to evoke from him. In the long novella that gives the collection its title, Cian Hannahoe’s path back from a breakdown requires his retirement from his bank position.
These two “cored out” characters (from the collection’s two strongest stories) are both obvious low points on the barometer of national morale, which is at a low ebb also elsewhere throughout the collection. Difficult as it is for the characters to keep their heads above water, they do, in the main, manage it. Alms for the poor in spirit are available in the shape of a little creature comfort, a little hope, a few carefree evenings. It’s given to a cancer-stricken poetry teacher, Maureen Connolly, in October-Coloured Weather to express a full appreciation of such compensations . By thought and act, she affirms the possibility of “the sacred moment. If there’s a sacrament, that’s it.”
For Sean Hyland, the fretful father of Figure in a Photograph, a sense of appeasement comes from picturing his son growing. In it he sees a future worth waiting for, even as he is aware that this too will not necessarily be pain-free. And if the narrator of The Wexford Girl (a story that, among its other accomplishments, includes a sketch of the history of Glasthule) remembers his father as no great shakes and recalls his parents’ life together as abusive and destructive, he recalls his father’s jokes, too, and the laughter for which, in his son’s mind, he had a kind of callow genius.
No such compensations are available to Senan Mulvey, and that is especially evident in his work, the national significance of which seems nonexistent. And whenever the national sphere gets a look-in here, it generally receives a bad time. The title of Boyhood’s Fire is drawn from A Nation Once Again, but what inflames Liam Hynes, the boy in question, is not Thomas Davis’s cheerleading but more commonplace desires: to see Ireland defeat England in the European Championship (the year is 1988) and to offer no resistance to his attractive but somewhat predatory Northern Catholic girlfriend, Siobhan, who says she’s still mad about him, despite Liam’s denunciation of her antiquated republican relatives. A notion once again seems more like it.
And Catherine Dwyer, an English television set designer for whom Cian Hannahoe falls, is on one occasion referred to as Cait Ni Dubhuir. But that only goes to show that the name Cáit Ní Dhuibhir no longer has any connotative value. Dream woman she may be, but ultimately she too is something of a passing cloud. Instead, the title novella concludes on a sustained and quite arresting note as Cian, fully recovered from what ailed him, delivers the eulogy at his father’s funeral. This not only reveals that Cian now has a Kerry woman for a partner and that she is expecting his child. It also is a hymn to the local, specifically the South Dock Ward of Dublin’s inner city, with its own distinctive history, pride, tenacity, principles, loyalties and every other quality that gives life value. Though this bravura speech – like much of the rest of Where Have You Been? – does not entirely avoid sentimentality, it does come across as a tribute to tradition, not only that of a community but also that of the literature of Dublin (the work of James Plunkett comes to mind), a rhetorically well-judged expression of plain speaking, reminding the reader that even “in the years of the Second Great Depression” we yet might think in terms of being no petty people.
George O’Brien is professor of English at Georgetown University, in Washington DC. His books include Dancehall Days: The Village of Longing and The Irish Novel 1960-2010