Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests





Sunday, March 10, 2013

In Too Deep and Other Short Stories by Billy O'Callaghan

In Too Deep and Other Short Stories by Billy O'Callaghan (2009, 252 pages)



March 1 to March 31

Billy O'Callaghan
Cork, Ireland

Posting on a collection of short stories presents more of a challenge, to me at least, than posting on a novel.  In Two Deep and Other Short Stories by Billy O'Callaghan is a diverse fascinating collection of twenty short stories.  For me I find the best way to post on a collection of short stories, both in terms of benefiting possible readers or buyers of the collection and respecting the writer, is to post in some detail on a representative number of the stories and then make some general observations on the collection and offer my thoughts to prospective readers.   To those who want the bottom line first, I would say that I totally endorse these stories, they are from the dark side at times, set mostly in   Ireland.   Some of the stories reflect the angst of post Celtic Tiger Ireland, some the sectarian violence, and many look into the lives of fragmented marginal people driven by loneliness and without much hope to desperate acts.  There is a lot of humor in these stories but it is of the laughing past the grave yard variety.  

"Love Story"

Have you ever fell in love at first sight with a stranger or a bus or a train and knew you were destined to be with them for the rest of your life?  How would you react if you were a man and felt that way about a woman you had never seen before?  Would you approach the woman and get down on your knees and ask her to marry you?  Further we wonder what can be in the mind of a woman who says yes to this proposal and means it.  "Love Story" brilliantly tells us how this can play out and does so without reducing either the man or woman to a comic pathetic figure.  I do not want to tell do much of the plot.  There is a wonderful conversation between the man and woman, and no neither one seems crazy, in which they explain their faults to each other.  As they part, the woman gives him her number and he puts it in his wallet.  He is walking home from his train stop when something very ugly shatters his dreams.  You will never see this ending coming.   I felt a lot of sadness for the man, I know he may be seeking something that he will one day wish he never had gotten but that it OK.   This is a wonderful very human story I very much enjoyed reading.  


"More Than One Way to Skin a Cat"

"Perhaps he won’t notice, the girl thought. After all, meat is 
meat, and he’s an old man now, not as sharp as he once was. 
Not that she had ever known him to be especially sharp, 
but still, time had to count for something, didn’t it? Time 
wore away mountains, they said. And meat is meat."

"More Than One Way to Skin a Cat" is a story of revenge (cat lovers like myself may cringe a bit over it) and how cruelty can be passed on from one generation to the next, in this case skipping one.  I have talked a good bit so far, and asked all Q and A subjects about Declan Kiberd's  contention in Inventing Ireland:  The Literature of the Modern Nation that the central theme of modern Irish literature is that of the missing or weak Irish father.  In this story we have a girl raised by her bloodily abusive grandfather with no mention of where her mother or father might be.   For years as she grew up every Sunday he would punish her for her sins of the week.  Now he was too old to do this anymore.

"Ever since she was a child,
he’d been a cruel bastard. All for her own good, of course;
that was how men like him always justified themselves.
There are right ways to do things and wrong ways, he used
to say, and the wrong ways will get your hands beaten blue.
Better to learn that lesson now than later.
He used a switch to inflict the bruises, twenty slender
inches of willow limb that he cut with ritualistic verve every
Sunday afternoon .."

One day he tells her he wants some rabbit stew for him Sunday meal so she sets some traps in the woods.   She has grown up in the country and she knows how to use a pocket knife to skin a rabbit.  My guess, and you are supposed to see it coming and the fun and power of the story is that the old man does not, is you know how this story is going to end.  Justice is served, literally

"An Immigrant's Christmas Eve"


"This can be the start of a new tradition for them; their Christmas 
will be special because they have one another. Two is more 
than enough to make a family.
Stefania pulls her cardigan closed across her narrow 
chest, strikes a match and lights the candle that she has 
placed in the window. This is one of the traditions that 
Ireland and Poland share, and maybe the best one. A small, 
flickering glow, giving hope to wanderers everywhere."   

Steafania, in Cork now for six years, cannot help but let her mind wander to the Christmas Eve's she recalls from her childhood in Poland.   Like many an immigrant she was lurked with dreams of glamour.   What she got was a two year romance with an Irishman who left her with a son, an Irish son.   The story is about the strength of the woman and her craving to create an atmosphere of  love for her son.  It is also another story about the weak or absent Irish father.   There are a lot of years coming for them and we want them to be good for the Polish mother and her Irish son.  O'Callaghan brings them totally to life in just a few wonderful page.

"The Black and Tan"


‘Right,’ one of them said. ‘We’ll have that gun.’ He 
looked very young, too young for all of this, not more than 
fifteen or sixteen. But that was the kind of war this was, and 
age had nothing to do with it. This one’s narrow, drooping 
frame made him seem taller than he probably was, but he 
held a rifle low and looked comfortable enough with it, like 
he knew how to use it, and his voice had a detached ease 
that made it through what should have been an otherwise 
smothering sing-song brogue."

The Black and the Tan regiments were soldiers from Great Britain who joined the Royal Irish Constabulary as temporary constables during The Irish War for Independence.  Their names comes from the color of their uniforms.  They were often former WWI troops who could not find work.  They were completely detested by the Irish as mercenaries  and they committed some of the worst atrocities of the war and were in turn shown no mercy.  The story opens with  small troop of black and tans being ambushed.   One of them takes off running but he is captured.  There is some interesting conversations between the Republican troops and the captured Black and Tan.  Readers of the war stories of Frank O'Connor will appreciate this universal war story about a man dying fighting a people he actually had nothing against because he could not make a living in Great Britain, after he fought for them for years in WWI.


"Dark Haired Beauties"

You have to read a good bit of "Dark Haired Beauties" to understand why this is such a sad story.  We meet a young man and his mother on the beach.  The mother has been crying a lot lately and we do not at first realize why.  We learn that he has recently gotten out of the hospital.   He is observing the girls on the beach, like any man young or old would, and he is particularly struck by one of the girls in a group of six playing volley ball, a dark haired beauty.  We slowly learn there is something terribly wrong with the man, some terrible injury suffered in a war.  We feel the guilt of the mother for letting him serve in the Vietnam War.  We do not know for sure what happened to him and maybe we do not want having to many details.  O'Callaghan's treatment of how the group of girls have to get their courage up to speak with him.  The mother's love is very deep.  There is no mention made of his father

"On the Beach"


"People knew at a glance that he had not been to blame.
Even Katie’s father had come to him, later, and in a small
voice said that sometimes things just happened. That the
world was not perfect and that God, if there was such a
person or a thing, had a lot to answer for. Those must have
been difficult words to say"

This is a story of a man getting ready to move to London to take a job with a tabloid and to be with Cassandra, a beautiful woman he loves.   We do not know if he is Irish or not but we do know that London represents all the glamour and excitement home does not have.  I guess he is in his early to middle twenties.  He wants to go but he also hates to leave home, their are memories that time him there.  When he was sixteen he and Kate, his first love, went into the ocean naked together, only he came out alive.  He comes to the sea in the very moving close of the story to say his last farewells.  (There is also use of the sea as a potential vehicle for suicide in the title story of the collection so it bears out the thesis that the nature of Irish literature is heavily shaped by the countries proximity to the ocean.)

"Heavy Seas"

"Heavy Seas" starts out on a stormy night on a fishing boat off the coast from Cork.  There is a horrible storm.  The boat goes down and one of the men is picked up by another boat but the rest of the crew, all were close, drown.  The survivor is a young man and he does not deal with his survivor's guilt very well at all.    He begins to fall apart.  The power in this story is the way it deals with the emotional reticence of the family toward the young man.  Of course they want him to pull himself together.  On his first night out after the incident his father checks to see if he has any money and the young man says "enough to get drunk".  O'Callaghan makes us feel the man's despair just as he made the storm very real for us.


In Too Deep and Other Short Stories by Billy O'Callaghan is not a collection of stories for those who live only in the full sunlight.  In each of the stories I posted on someone either dies or suffers a terrible lose.  The violence in these stories is senseless.

I highly recommend  In Too Deep and Other Short Stories by Billy O'Callaghan to any lovers of the form. Many of the stories are in the Frank O'Connor tradition of works about lonely, sub-marginalized  people with no one to speak for them.  Every story is excellent and will completely keep your attention.

Author Data (from his Webpage)


I was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974, and am the author of two short story collections: ‘In Exile’ (2008) and ‘In Too Deep’ (2009), both published by the Mercier Press.
In 2010, I was the recipient of an Arts Council of Ireland Bursary Award for Literature. My stories have won the 2005 George A. Birmingham Short Story Award, the 2006 Lunch Hour Stories Prize and the 2007 Molly Keane Creative Writing Award, and have been short-listed for many more prizes, including the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Award, the RTE Radio 1 Francis MacManus Short Story Award, the Faulkner/Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Glimmer Train Open Fiction Award and the Writing Spirit Award. I was also been short-listed in three consecutive years, 2008- 2010, for the RTE Radio 1 P.J. O’Connor Award for Drama.
I am currently at work on my first novel, tentatively entitled ‘Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby,’ and am in the process of compiling a new collection of stories.
Over the past decade, my work has appeared in more than seventy literary journals and magazines around the world, including: Absinthe: New European Writing, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Bellevue Literary Review, Confrontation, Crannóg, First City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ireland’s Own, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative Magazine, Pearl, Pilvax (Hungary), the Southeast Review, Southword, Underground Voices, Verbal Magazine (Northern Ireland), Versal (Holland), Waccamaw and Yuan Yang: a Journal of Hong Kong and International Writing. New work is forthcoming in the Fiddlehead.

I hope to read his second collection of short stories, In Exile, soon.
I hope to have a Q and A session with him soon.

Mel u

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