shining the spotlight on short story collections
Greetings, Hero by Aiden O’Reilly
Published by Honest Publishing, November 2014
“I ran my fingers across the rough chisel cuts, trying to achieve a closer contact. The farmer, the writer, the merchant. I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for a past that I had no claim on.“
About the author: Aiden O’Reilly lived for nine years in Eastern Europe and is now based mainly in Dublin. His fiction has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Irish Times, Prairie Schooner, 3am magazine and in Unthology 4 and several other anthologies. He won the biannual McLaverty Short Story Award in 2008.
Loners, drifters, oddballs – these are the characters who populate Aiden O’Reilly’s stories. Men who work in dead-end jobs. They live in rented bedsits or one-room apartments, spend their evenings drinking with other men, and objectify women. This is literally true in Self-Assembly, a story in which Eugene comes home to find a long box containing a self-assembly kit woman. Following a theme mined by Ian McEwan more than once, O’Reilly explores issues of identity and significance without resorting to the gruesome. When Genevieve, as Eugene calls his assembled woman, describes his friends as ‘nothing people’ it strikes him as a ‘lacerating insight’. This story meets two of my three personal Es for a successful story – entertainment and elucidation (the third being education) – and as such is for me one of the most successful in the collection.
A hero is a man admired for brave acts or noble qualities – the apparent antithesis of the men who populate O’Reilly’s stories. The narrator of the central title story, Greetings, Hero, is addressed as such by someone who offers him a lift while he is walking through a monotonous landscape at night, walking to feel something, or to escape feeling. When he eventually gets back to the place where he lives, he imagines himself entering the city in triumph, but this supposed triumph is empty.
The characters in these stories generally fail to act, but are nevertheless, in some part of themselves, aware of the possibility of something more than the mundane. In The Laundry Key Complex, two mature students share a mixture of strangeness and normality. When Simon persuades Eugene to join him at a group psychoanalysis session, Eugene finds something welling up within him:
‘Next,’ he called in a tired voice. And I felt the old childish tremor within me, the thought of a secrete divine spark, my hidden hero self, and that it might be revealed and might shine.
In Unfinished Business the narrator has a successful (if unexciting) career and happy (if unexciting) marriage. Recalling the “incomprehensible expectations of girls” in his youth, who he had hoped “would coax out my secret hero self”, he takes an opportunity to live out his teenage desires. It seems that – at least in the world of these stories – many men’s ‘hero self’ is at best amoral and hardly the stuff of the archetypal hero of myth and legend that they perhaps imagine!
The consequences of this attempt by any individual to ignore the lessons of his past can be catastrophic. In Contempt, Ruben had opportunities when he was younger, but has drifted into work on a building site.
If he had to explain how it is – and there is no one to explain to – he would say that he is only what he thinks… But for him, being each moment only what he thinks, there is nothing to fall back on.
Ruben invites a Latvian girl he meets on the street to stay in his Dublin flat. They are not partners, nor even friends. Though they may sometimes share a bed this is “unacknowledged in the daylight hours”. When the girl leaves and takes his money, he seeks her out and the subsequent sequence of violent events is predictable.
O’Reilly’s focus is on men’s actions, men’s views, men’s justifications. Although he does not condone what men do, women have no voice and little agency in these stories. In Human Behaviour, for example, women are there exclusively for men’s gratification. Touching a women’s underwear to his crotch, Kevin “feels purified, filled with confidence.” If this “hunter’s magic”, as he calls it, is heroism, it is a shabby thing.
The distance between people is a theme which recurs throughout the collection – A Fine Noble Corpse shows a young man unable to ‘read’ women’s expectations; The Re-education Camp recounts how easily and over how little – in this case a lost umbrella – violence can erupt; in the title story male friendship is shown as something fugitive and unreliable.
There is little to be optimistic about from the point of view of the characters in these stories, but nonetheless there is a heft to much of the writing which raises it above the banality and pointlessness of the lives of the characters. Stripped Bare convincingly gets inside the mind of Cyril, a boy seeking an escape from the unbearable. And there is a poignancy to Concrete Triumphant, a sparse and stark tale of the brutality of manual work.
O’Reilly’s collection is uneven. It took a while for me to enter into this male world and sometimes – as in Roman Empires – I failed. I’m not sure that in the end I understand much more about men, but these characters are tricky so that’s not surprising! And it’s always good to try.
Read Aiden O’Reilly’s story Contract in Litro
About the reviewer: Cath Barton is an English writer and photographer who lives in Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella for The Plankton Collector, which will be published in 2018 by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. She is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review