'A world where larks fly down onto your hand and sing to you and where the animals never eat each other." Such worlds are held in contempt by the characters in Aiden O'Reilly's debut collection. Greetings, Hero is populated by drifters, men who are uneasy with the world and unsure of their place in it. It is a sprawling and ambitious book that succeeds in giving a voice to the marginalised. Whether in Eastern Europe, Germany or Ireland, O'Reilly's predominantly male protagonists exist on the fringes.
Having lived in Poland and Germany, O'Reilly is now based in Dublin and his stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, the Dublin Review and the Sunday Tribune. Many of the 15 in this collection are set against the backdrop of his adopted homelands and draw on the author's varied careers as a lecturer, translator and labourer.
Along the way we meet madcap academics, savvy Polish translators and college dropouts working alongside immigrants to build Celtic Tiger Ireland. In Human Behaviour, an Irishman living in Berlin grapples with cultural differences at a party, finding it hard to relate to the straight-talking German women he is trying to bed. Wilma has little time for small talk: "What is your relationship with Klaudia? What activities do you do?" And then: "Are you a moral person? Would you cheat at work?" An earlier incident in the bathroom lets the reader draw their own conclusions.
Over the edge
Issues of morality crop up repeatedly. In Lost and Found, a stolen umbrella sends a teacher over the edge. O'Reilly captures the voice of the teenage bully, his threats provoking an adult to violence. As the teacher punches the child in the face, there is the sense of an everyman who has snapped.
A husband's adultery in Unfinished Business is chillingly related, all notions of morality disappearing as he goes to a nightclub and picks up a teenage girl. There is something psychopathic in the logical, detached way he justifies his behaviour and in his mistreatment of women.
There are overtones of John McGahern in Concrete Triumphant, which shows the fraught relationship between a craftsman and his young apprentice son. The boy longs to be back in school, a place he hated, to escape from his father and the manual labour that has made "two fleshy lumps" of his hands. The father's voice is alive from the opening line: "Would you lift up, don't be stooping." But the voice of the young boy is lost somewhat as it gives way to the author's description. Similar interruptions occur elsewhere with certain convoluted expressions detracting from voice. At over 300 pages, the collection is too long and its themes feel repetitive at times.
The right thing to do is often unclear in these stories. O'Reilly is skilled at placing his characters in morally ambiguous predicaments, allowing us to empathise, if not agree, with their choices. In Contempt, college dropout Ruben works on the building sites in Dublin. While his immigrant workmates know how to play the system, Ruben is a dreamer, leaving himself open to be played.
When a Latvian girl takes advantage of his good nature, Ruben wakes from his dream world and realises he is far from the hero he set out to be. The girl’s motivations are not explained. Women are rarely given a voice or interiority.
Heroes are a recurring theme. The titular piece is an 80-page novella that sees its characters roam from Poland to Ireland and back again in search of a place in the world. Irishman Geoff feels more at home wandering the frozen Polish countryside than he does in his dingy Dublin bedsit. His Polish friend Stan shuns his immigrant status in Ireland and forges a successful career in business.
These reversals are interesting and O’Reilly makes insightful comparisons between the two cultures.
While an affinity for suffering is common to both, money is, as ever, the great divider: “He talked about seeing the ground fall away, the rush of acceleration, and how several people vomited. I’d been on many flights and never seen anyone vomit.” Concerns over a friend, the nomadic Silent Michal, unite the pair, but the story feels disjointed as it flits between the lives and histories of the three men.
There are no superheroes in these stories, rather a seeking of better versions of self, as with Eugene in The Laundry Room. In the heart-rending Stripped Bare, a boy starved of love attempts to harden himself up with a gruelling training regime: "For those who will not yield to pretence must learn to endure an eternity of cold." The author lays bare these characters as they wander their lonely worlds, braving the elements.