Stories of everyday Joes are miles away from ‘fluent bullshit’ of the boom

Where Have You Been?

Joseph O’Connor

Harvill Secker, €13.99;

adobe ebook, €22.82; Kindle, £9.49

Interview: Richard Fitzpatrick

The central characters in Joseph O’Connor’s first collection of short stories in more than 20 years (a set which includes a novella that lends the book its title Where Have You Been?) lead complicated, troubled lives.

Many of them struggle with the enigma of married life. In the heartrending Death of a Civil Servant, Senan Mulvey suffers from “the ache of a broken heart”, while bereavement is visited on a young emigrant Irish couple in late 19th-century New York “like a swallowing of ice”.

Even Sean Hyland, newly despised by his 13-year-old son, despairs at “the loneliness he didn’t know would come with fatherhood”. They are sensitive souls, absorbed in ordinary travails, which is often the landscape of American fiction, unsurprisingly given O’Connor’s influences, who include Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, John Cheever and John Updike.

“There is an idea in American literature that we sometimes don’t have in Ireland and it comes from the same kind of tradition of democracy,” he says. “If you said to any American writer that a difficult book was great, I don’t think they’d know what you were talking about. I think that there’s always been the idea for a novel or a short story to be really great that it should be capable to be read by anyone.

“They tend to write about everyday experiences — the common man and woman — and to write about them in a celebratory way and to feel that the everyday struggles of paying the bills or mortgage are as interesting as the struggles of princes or heroes that you see in great European literature.

“It’s there in Bruce Springsteen. It’s there in Dylan and Woody Guthrie — the notion that a real artist should be looking at everyday life, not necessarily the lives of the beautiful and heroic people who strolled through English 19th-century fiction. That focus on the everyday is the thing that gave the world rock ‘n roll, probably the most wonderful art form of them all.”

Emigration haunts several of the Irish lives that O’Connor depicts, as they tramp off the island — some with a heavy heart; others with resignation — towards London and the United States. O’Connor, who was born in 1962, left himself for England in the mid-1980s, only returning nine years later. Dublin offered nothing.

“I thought it was very grim, but I didn’t feel any trauma,” he says. “You were sort of brought up to leave. There was no possibility that you were going to be able to stay in Ireland. You started thinking when you were 15 or 16 of where you were going to emigrate to.

“On a summer night myself and my pals — it’s sort of alluded to in one of the stories in the book, Figure in a Photograph — used to go down to the pier in Dun Laoghaire and look at the boats going over to Liverpool or Holyhead and wonder which one of them we’d be on. There wasn’t any notion that you would stay in this funny little, rainy failed place, which was a bit of an embarrassment.

“Before the era of U2, say, no bands ever would have come to play here. There were very few writers of any note or achievement who were living in Ireland at the time. The city was culturally very dead.

“I remember my grandfather used to read the News of the World on a Sunday for his sins. There was the weather map in it of what was then called the British Isles and it would have Britain on the right-hand side and then to the west of it the North of Ireland, like a little island. The place where I lived was not even worth the pitiful amount of ink you would have needed to put on the map. It wasn’t even there. That’s all how we felt — it wasn’t really there.”

O’Connor turns his gaze on the Celtic Tiger with savage results. The opening story, Two Little Clouds, a homage to James Joyce’s A Little Cloud, is about a London Irish émigré who returns briefly to Dublin in 2007, although it may well have been 50 years ago, the crude, champagne lifestyle all feels so long ago. The humour is outrageous.

Eddie Virage, a brash estate agent, and an old friend from some of O’Connor’s early fiction, speaks “fluent bullshit”. When he breezes into the Clarence Hotel at cocktail hour, he brushes past Bono and Seamus Heaney who are chatting quietly at the reception desk with the Minister for Health Mary Harney. “‘How’s the men?’ he smiles as he makes for the bar with the narrator. ‘Fine, thank you,’ said Mary Harney. Her two companions looked confused.”

The sad bit, of course, is the fanciful thinking which pervaded Irish society at the time, notes O’Connor.

“Kids were brought up with the delusion of the boom — that they’d leave college and have a choice of jobs and big salaries. I remember a few years ago I was teaching in University College Dublin, my old alma mater, and there was a very bright fellow in my class, a nice intelligent lad.

“I remember talking to him one day after the class. He was a talented writer. I was asking him what he was going to do after he left college and he said he was going to buy three apartments and rent them out to Polish people and do nothing. That was his ambition.

“I remember coming home that day with a sinking feeling, just thinking this is not actually normal what’s happening to us. A 21-year-old wants to be a rock star or an actor or wants to set the world on fire in some way, and then they slowly adjust — perhaps that isn’t going to work — and they find something else to do.

“But for a 21-year-old to want to do that and for it to be quite normal — he wasn’t embarrassed about saying this at all. I thought, Oh, Jesus, the place has actually fallen for the myth of the free lunch and that you can have a very nice life, with lots and lots of money, by not doing anything, by owning property. I think it’s very tough for them.”

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