Staring down the barrel with John O’Brien

John Toomey pays tribute to his Dalkey Archive Press publisher, friend and former boss

December 9th, 2020
Suddenly, this morning, what I had been expecting for the last few weeks arrived. Descending soundlessly, like a mist or something – an almost tangible sense of loss. Some regret. A very personal sadness.

Logging onto the Dalkey Archive Press website, to check on details for the virtual memorial for its publisher John O’Brien, the notice just below the memorial details caught my eye – Dalkey Archive on Bookshop.org. The first lines of it read, “For the current time, we have temporarily shut down the ordering function through this website.”

And it seemed so final.

John seemed so gone among those words.

And with my headphones on and some random mix of classical something playing, I was reminded of him and what I would hear when I walked in to meet him in any of his various homes – Fitzwilliam Lane and Raglan Lane, in Dublin, or in the great expanse of The Danes, in Wicklow, where the beloved dogs ran free and they called Ireland home for a couple of years. Dickens and Higgins are the dogs I remember. Higgins named after Aidan Higgins, who John placed just behind Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien in the pantheon of great Irish writers.

There were the offices at Trinity too, of course; but John and I rarely met there.

John O’Brien was my publisher and my friend. He was also, for a few years, my boss. Working with John was an experience. Anyone who worked for Dalkey will tell you that. A lot of people didn’t last long, leaving for the sake of their own sanity or dismissed by John via some invariably blunt email. The John O’Brien I knew, as a boss, could be irritable and rude and intolerant of anyone’s inability to read his mind. In fact, he often said to me, “I just need an assistant who can read my mind.” Somebody who knew him and could anticipate what he would want next.

It was part of John’s mad genius that he could lament the absence of this impossibility without even the slightest hint of the absurd. I would often tell him that the seeds of his perpetual dissatisfaction were sown in his ludicrous expectations. As I laughed disbelievingly at the outlandishness of these expectations, he would get annoyed with me and throw his hands in the air in that short, aggressive gesture of frustration that was one of his signatures; he couldn’t comprehend any lowering of expectations, no matter how unreasonable.

Over the years, there have been a few employees that he thought could do the impossible job he wanted done. He would name-check them from time to time. But they moved on or he did or they all fell out with each other. This was a pattern. When you worked for Dalkey Archive, you stared down the barrel at John O’Brien on a daily basis. The only thing you could do was say your piece and accept that any moment could be your last. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure.

You will have no trouble finding people who would be more than happy to verify this same story of John O’Brien and life at Dalkey Archive Press. But what you will not find so readily, and what you should know, is that he was also immensely kind, generous and decent.

By the time I came to him looking for work we were already friends. But what he gave me saved my life, in figurative terms. I imagine he saw this as a repaying of an old debt, when some years before he had found himself rushed into cardiac surgery in Ireland. Post-surgery, in the Beacon Hospital, he was in very poor health and was struggling to communicate with either the Dublin office or anyone at home in the US. I blagged my way into intensive care one evening, slipping through a door left open by an exiting visitor and convincing a nurse and doctor to let me talk to him. I could see him in his cubicle. Agitated, trying to speak into a phone that a nurse held up for him. When I got to his bedside, I thought he looked petrified. In that way people can when their minds have slipped from solid cognitive footing. And he looked angry too. He was speaking in riddles and nonsense. He was frustrated and paranoid and completely disorientated. I took his phone and spoke to one of his family in the US. Once I had done that and offered them what little assurance I could, I held John’s hand for a while and spoke to him. He recognised me, I think. Or a half-familiar voice, at least. And he relaxed for a while.

After that, I visited him in hospital several times. Once with my eldest son, Oscar, then aged five or six and with a thick shock of wavy blond hair that John was struck by and always remembered thereafter.

In the subsequent weeks and months, I visited John back at Fitzwilliam Lane, where a bed had been brought in and installed downstairs, in the living room, which was also the Dalkey Archive Dublin office. There he could be cared for and continue to work; a thing he never ceased to do.

Once when we visited, Oscar filled his pockets with the shiny, oval pebbles from out the back of the house. John loved this little quirk of boyhood and always remembered that too. He continued asking after Oscar and his stone-collection, long after it ceased to be a thing in Oscar’s life.

But what John gave me back when I came to work for him at Dalkey Archive was much more than a repayment of any imagined debt. Whatever I may have done for him, he gave me dignity when I had none. He gave me a means to take care of my family and the opportunity to earn my way, at a time when life had left me on the floor.

If my story was a sole example of John’s goodness then it might not be worth telling. But it isn’t. I know of another Dalkey employee, ultimately relieved of his duties at Dalkey following several outbursts and struggling with various substances, with whom John remained in contact. John continued to meet with them and email him long after the man had left Dalkey. He threw what freelance work there was available in his direction. John saw past that man’s problems, recognised the vulnerability and persevered with someone whose alternatives were limited. John may have let him go but he didn’t abandon him.

That’s what John was like with a lot of people. He took in all measure of strays. And I know because I was one of them. But he didn’t f**k around either. If you were playing the little violin for yourself or not pulling your weight, he’d cut you loose. But he always came back for you. I suppose he had a soft spot for the down-trodden. That should be part of John O’Brien’s story too, I think.

There is one story, though, that speaks most clearly to me about who John was and what made him. He told it to me as I sat at his bedside in hospital, after that surgery. When he was a young boy, in Chicago, aged seven or eight maybe, he had a friend. His best friend. Their houses backed onto each other. One day, while his friend was at the local pool, he slipped while running along the side. He hit his head and died instantly.

John was devastated, he said, but years later the only thing he remembered was walking out the back of his house the next morning and just standing there at the fence, waiting for his friend to come out and play. He said he knew his friend was dead but he just stared at the back door of his house anyway, waiting for reality to be denied. John cried when he recounted the story and he said he had never told anyone before. But I tell it now because it seemed to me to encapsulate some essence of what John was at his core – a formless, existential pain and a dreamy refusal to accept limitations.

So then this morning, for the first time since I heard the news of his passing a couple of weeks ago, I really felt his absence. Looking at the notice on the website, the idea that Dalkey Archive, for all its innovations and incarnations and offshoots and dead-ends and spectacular successes, had ceased doing what it was doing in whatever haphazard and ingenious way it did it, struck a cruel, cold chord.

But then, just as suddenly, rising from its own ashes, as Dalkey Archive tends to do, the next sentence on the website reads, “Instead, you can order any and all Dalkey Archive titles through our page at Bookshop.org.”

This, in the end, was John’s mission. For Dalkey’s titles to remain in print and available. For somebody to take care of them and love them like he did. That job falls now to Deep Vellum and Dalkey Archive’s board members and his eldest son, Will O’Brien. I think John would be happy to know that this often troublesome part of the jigsaw, getting books into readers’ hands, is being taken care of.

I don’t remember when exactly we last spoke or saw each other but I know that we were scheduled to speak on Saturday, November 21st. We were beginning tentative discussions about a new Irish press. I had planned to do it alone but then he proposed the same idea and we said we should talk. Five or six titles a year, a quarterly magazine, a website, a podcast. He sent a budget. We were to talk.

But he had been sick and in hospital again in the weeks prior to this. He had been “to the underworld and back”, he wrote to me, in his usual dramatic style. But he was home now and we continued to email in the run-up to our scheduled Skype call. We talked about him coming back to Dublin, about meeting for pizza. In Dalkey village again, maybe. We went to Regazzi’s once. He had really liked it. Then I got caught up somewhere on the Saturday afternoon, busy with life, and emailed to ask could we reschedule our Skype call until later that evening. He replied, “Family will be here visiting. Could we do it tomorrow?”

Perfect.

But there was no tomorrow.

On Sunday afternoon I logged on. I tried to call several times. User off-line, it said. I’d never seen that before. I wondered.

His last words to me read, "Good times for me." Good times. Ahead of his family visiting and Dalkey Archive's future looking secure and being home in Funk's Grove, among the trees and the turning colours of the leaves and the dogs. I am both glad and regretful now when I think of him. Glad of his good times and regretful that we never had our last conversation. Because I miss him now. John O'Brien – my publisher and briefly my boss. A difficult man. A brilliant man. A man who was often what we call around these parts an awful auld bollocks.

But most of all he was my dear friend. And I miss him.

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