“I once owned a house in Bucharest,” begins the first and eponymous story, and with this Ó Ceallaigh signals several features that percolate through this collection: an Eastern European setting, the first-person point of view of a driftless narrator, and a sense that good fortune seldom holds. In “Trouble,” an unnamed nightwatchman is enlisted by his gangster boss to drive around town and perform shady errands. On one such trip, he meets the boss’s pretty, young girlfriend and escapes to the Balkans with her and the gangster’s money. Things go horribly awry — because of the two-timing woman, but also because of the hopelessly gullible and passive narrator. As in most of the stories in the collection, our narrator is a middle-aged man prone to bad choices. Ó Ceallaigh’s main characters are men who work in dull, low-paying jobs, who drink too much, who live in leaky apartments, or who find themselves with nowhere to sleep but on a bar’s tacky floor. They are men who chase after casual, offbeat sex and who often feel leashed like dogs to women from whom they long to break free. They are men with girlfriends and wives who are either unfaithful or bitter and manipulative. Indeed, the only females on whom this collection shines a flattering light are those who have yet to hit puberty.
Three of the 13 stories explore parenthood: “Spring” and “Dead Dog,” in which the same father-daughter duo make a life in a crumbling apartment building, and “Graceland,” where the father’s fierce attachment to his spirited daughter is threatened by a resentful and punitive mother. These are the most tender stories, where Ó Ceallaigh’s men are at their most giving and savor small domestic acts like putting clean, dry socks on a shivering daughter’s feet.
In the other stories, the men are more cynical and sex is often a motivating force. “Trouble” ends with the narrator jamming his face against the shaved crotch of his neighbor, a “big, simple girl from the country called Lili with extraordinary breasts.” In the next, “Island” — about a man who escapes the mainland in search of an idyllic life of self-sufficiency — monkey-like creatures, or perhaps tiny humans with tails, grind and pant and devour one another while the booze-soaked narrator looks on in a hallucinatory daze. In the third story, “Smoke,” Ó Ceallaigh mingles the carnal with the spiritual when a teenage boy is hurled to the ground from his bike while reminiscing on how he recently lost his virginity.
I was aware of where I was, and what had happened in the days and weeks preceding that moment. But my troubles no longer belonged to me. They were clamouring little objects I watched from above, free of them, just as I observed the desperation of my body as my throat made foul funny noises, begging for breath. I had heard rumours of the soul, of course, but later I would always know it as that jailbird inside my ribcage, just flown, glancing back at the world as it rose to dissolve itself in the blue. And I wondered if my back was broken.
With that last sentence, Ó Ceallaigh yanks the boy and the reader back to earth, where his descriptions always sparkle and skewer. He captures in detail the ugliness of urban life, from its “screaming boulevards,” to its “choked and angry heart.” Neither Dublin, where Ó Ceallaigh’s went to college, nor Bucharest, where he has lived for decades, get off lightly. The nightwatchman in “Trouble” says of Dublin, “All you need to see is the squalling seagulls in the stink of the port at dawn to know there is something putrid in the fibre of the place that no number of Trinity students with coloured scarves will balance out.”
Bucharest is portrayed as colorless and crumbling, with authoritarian buildings and gnarled traffic and a little river “pent between concrete banks like a giant open drain, to one side the palace of the dictator, vast and useless on its artificial hill.” And yet, one senses Ó Ceallaigh’s perverse appreciation for this graceless city, just as he savors his down-at-heel, rumpled protagonists who happily lavish scorn on better-groomed men.
In “My Life in the Movies,” a story that pairs and resonates with “My Life in the City,” the screenwriter protagonist goes to a bar with a movie director who owes him money, and who also, indirectly, has given him gonorrhea.
Around us, the new species of male that was invading the planet — skinny, blow-dried, finicky about attire and grooming. Aliens, hunched into the screens of laptops and hand-held devices, attentive as lovers, faces palely illumined in the hypnotic masturbatory glow.
The beers, when they came, were small. But expensive, due to the technology invested in their shrinkage.
When all else fails — when the girlfriend leaves or the wife refuses to leave, when the money runs out, when the ceiling threatens to cave in — these men still have their resilience, their dark humor, and their mordant self-awareness, which, on several occasions, saves them from being dismissed by the reader as tiresomely crude. Plot never seems quite the point in these slice-of-life stories. Instead, they offer a meditation on man’s frailty and what it means to be human.
Often enough in this collection, to be human is to show your animal nature. Here it is always close to the surface, as is violence and a yearning for unrequited love. Animals of all sorts feature widely in the stories and sometimes merge with humans, like the monkey creatures in “Island.” In “London,” the narrator briefly escapes his family responsibilities by walking his dog, described as “a placid creature, but the jaws were meant to crack bone.” The man stops on a bench, pulls a small bottle from his coat pocket, downs it, and dreams that London is frolicking maniacally in a nearby apartment with an imagined woman who has “lolling paps” and “rocking hips.” He awakes, with London returning to him, and sets off for home. Domesticity chafes these men, even when they seek it, and sometimes, as at the end of “My Life in the Movies,” the narrator feels himself to be the one at the end of the leash.
The violence often simmering under the surface breaks out in Ó Ceallaigh’s most chilling story, “First Love,” which serves as a bracing intermission. It is a semi-fictionalized version of the diaries of SS officer Felix Landau, spanning a three-month period in 1941 when Landau served as head of Jewish affairs in a Polish city. The entries juxtapose his “torment” at being apart from his mistress with his task of killing and controlling the Jewish population. As with other stories in this collection, it explores love and violence, just in a more brutal and overt form.
Hardly any sleep — woken for the execution. I desire combat, end up shooting unarmed people. 23, including two women. […] Most of them very brave. Maybe they can’t believe it. Not enough shovels to go round so most of them are idle. I’m a marksman in case anyone makes a run for it. Admire their composure but the scene stirs no pity in me. […]
All this time waiting for word from her, expecting relief, and it only brings more torment. Says she loves me, wants to be with me, feels as I do about this separation, agrees Radom [the Polish town where they consummated their affair] has changed us both forever.
At other times, the juxtaposition is between Landau’s work and his lyrical description of the scenery.
Got home this evening before sundown, in time to sit on my little balcony and drink a couple of brandies and look over all this beautiful land, changing before my eyes as the shadows deepened, over the woodlands, over the hills, each mistier and more washed than the other, like a watercolour, the gradations registering distance until a blurred horizon. We have hemmed the Jews in and there is a curfew.
Ó Ceallaigh’s sentences are spare and taut. They imbue the prose with urgency and lift his characters off the page. Whatever else these men are — brooding, banal, callous, misogynistic, petty, evil — they are all very much alive. Whether portraying the point of view of a Nazi general or a besotted teenager, Ó Ceallaigh writes with such immediacy, such confessional intensity, that when the narrator leans in close and says, “Look — there lies trouble,” it is impossible to look away.
Jean Hey’s essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Plain Dealer, The Chicago Tribune, Solstice Magazine, and The MacGuffin.