Levitation review: Short stories that rise to the best of fiction
Sean O’Reilly’s new collection, many of them set in barber shops, is a cut above the rest
Sean O’Reilly: Levitation has an echo of Joyce’s Ulysses, but his voice is all his own: intelligent, lyrical and deeply funny. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Stinging Fly Press
“As every native knows, the charm of Dublin is all about who you might meet when you’re out and about on its miserly handful of streets. It might be someone you haven’t seen in a long time or a face from only the night before. It might be a lover you’ve never forgotten or your brother’s handsome headmaster or an old landlord you still owe money to.”
This aside from the title story of Sean O’Reilly’s new collection Levitation has more than an echo of Joyce’s Ulysses, but O’Reilly’s voice is all his own: intelligent, lyrical and deeply funny. The narrators haunt the streets and pubs of present-day Dublin and especially the barber shops where stories are told and reputations made and torn up.
The American writer Eudora Welty said that “fiction depends for its life on place”. Sean O’Reilly’s linked collection of stories reflecting the aforementioned Dublin charm in its mixture of new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, does indeed depend for its life on place. But Dublin isn’t the only place here. The collection opens with an exceptionally fine story, told in Derry demotic: Hallion #1, which continues in Hallion #2 later in the book. Hallion means thief and the speaker is a thief awaiting and avoiding a kneecapping. Although St Martin De Porres – no stranger to the practice of levitation – is the patron saint of barbers, it is Hermes in all of his guises who presides here. Not only the god of war and thieves and writers, Hermes the trickster guards borders and crossings. “Vinnie’s Big-time Barbershop” in Derry has an underground tunnel teeming with voices crossing the Irish border, bringing their Derry wit to Dublin. As every writer knows, you have to go to the underworld to get your stories.
Attention or love
At first it seems the characters are telling stories to get attention or love. In the case of the madcap always-about-to-be-kneecapped father in the Hallion stories, the narrator is looking for forgiveness and understanding. But everything hangs on what he chooses to reveal. The protagonist of Hallion is aware of the danger of showing too much. “Detective Hawkins is nodding along with me like I’ve been talking out loud and he’s dying to hear the rest of it but I haven’t been/ I wasn’t talking/ I was silent the way you’re supposed to be/”. These voices are in the business of survival, the typography reflecting this in censored lines.
Prams have a wonderful, absurdist life of their own here
Revealing too much in Derry can lead to a prison sentence or even a death sentence. Free Derry Corner, with its barricades, is another embattled border. On the other side is the army struggling to fight the invisible Provos. The “scumbag squaddies” deeply suspicious of the prams, which are not just baby carriers but potential Trojan horses, train their “big long-range binoculars” to “check what’s under the hood”. Prams have a wonderful, absurdist life of their own here: the book opens with a “swanky red” one which later on not only gets hilariously dragged up and down steps Eisenstein-style but actually gets arrested. Prams turn up again in Dublin, bolstering the Dubliners “impregnable behind prams, pets and phones”. The first city haunts the second one.
In Free Verse, a barber gets into trouble for writing about his ex-girlfriend when he was in prison. He defends himself, saying “it helped me to write it down . . . There was a writing group inside and the tutor pushed me to keep going with it and it’s only a small unknown publisher.” So much for staying underground and/or gaining understanding. She’s not impressed and judges the writing “sordid, and embarrassing . . . a crass and seriously twisted attempt at a justification.” Her sentence: an order to leave Dublin. Telling stories is a tricky business, but exile is the traditional punishment for writers, and there is sense that this character can only truly begin again in the distance of exile. After all, the multi-disciplinary Hermes is the god of travellers as well as liars.
Why is it so tempting to tell the biggest lies in a barbershop
Most of the roads in Levitation lead to barber shops. Ceremony, republished here, was one of the stand-out stories in the 2015 Faber anthology All Over Ireland. Hilarious and painful, it features another troubled barber staggering under the weight of his own stories: “Why is it so tempting to tell the biggest lies in a barbershop, Ringo can’t resist wondering aloud.”
Levitation is an up-to-date haunted book, its mushrooming stories sprouting not just from the compost of Joyce. The mysterious sheep-like creature in the fog of the Hallion stories has a flavour of Carroll, and Valentine Rice from the title story, Levitation, drinks in a pub called Crusoe’s. Rice, like many of the characters in this book, is a castaway and Defoe, one of the fathers of modern fiction who lied and spent time in prison, was, like O’Reilly, in the business of transformations. Levitation flies on the wind of the best of fiction, and, as I read down the tunnels and around the warrens of Levitation, I keep thinking of this passage from Ulysses:
Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.
- Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her latest book is The Windows of Graceland, New and Selected Poems (Carcanet)