AT FIRST glance, Paul O’Reilly’s debut collection of short stories seems issue-driven.
Doire Press, €12
With themes such as Alzheimer’s disease, cyber-bullying, drugs, emigration and prostitution, the author appears to be ticking boxes, dealing with realities that are all too familiar.
But the subject matter is scaffolding for well-drawn characters, caught up in situations that reveal their inner cores; their sometimes fragile, and other times touching, relationships, and their engagement with a bewildering world.
The opening story, ‘What Rose Did’, reveals the terrible effects of a devastating case of cyber-bullying. And that’s just the effects on the family of a teenage girl who, with a friend, caused the suicide of Rose.
This rather lengthy story is told in the first person, from the point of view of the mother of Leanne, one of the bullies.
Related in a direct and compelling style, there are no quotation marks here, in a narrative that is immediate and painful, with Leanne’s mother treating her errant daughter as a victim.
Death stalks this story, not just because of Rose’s suicide, but because of the fear that Leanne may look for a way out of her disgrace.
In ‘Alzheimer’s’, an unnamed character, who is the mother of the narrator, has the titular disease but is not lacking short-term memory.
Her son, Flynn, who has been carrying on an unsavoury relationship with a Polish woman in a van, is surprised that his normally forgetful mother remembers that Kalina is his girlfriend’s name.
But that’s because she makes the association with Pope John Paul’s homeland. Flynn has to remind his mother that the Polish Pope is dead.
The disconnect between mother and son is clear throughout this depressing story, which also underlines Flynn’s distance from his ‘girlfriend’, who is a prostitute. Kalina isn’t a fully-fleshed out character, but this may be intentional.
Men don’t come out well in the title story, either. It’s about a married Irish man let loose in Amsterdam, where he is set up, by his male friends, with a prostitute who has a reputation for being memorable.
There is palpable tension in this story, which is seedy and guilt-ridden. The narrator can’t help thinking of his wife at home, who, he reckons, must be wondering what he’s up to.
But he consoles himself by deciding that she’s probably watching television, “...drinking tea. Dunking digestives. Her pyjamas on.”
As for the memorable hooker, she certainly makes an impression — but for all the wrong reasons. This, you could say, is a morality tale. But, mostly, it’s a mixture of funny and repulsive — at the same time.
A swingers’ weekend is the setting for ‘Guys and the Way They Might Look at You.’ It involves a married couple, bored with each other. They plan to hook up with another couple. What transpires isn’t unexpected.
But there are worthwhile observations. The male narrator muses: “But.. sometimes, the older you are, the closer to death you are and the less time you have to worry about it, then the less you feel you have to lose, and the more you feel like cramming it all in.”
The author crams a lot into his collection of nine stories. O’Reilly’s writing style is spare, with no artifice, just plenty of intimacy. It’s a promising debut from a writer who is attuned to the tawdriness and the sadness that stalk his characters’ worlds.