An illicit meeting between lovers makes for a poignant meditation on middle age and the passing of time
Billy O’Callaghan is the author of three short story collections, which have won an Irish book award and a nomination for a Costa prize. His debut novel,
The Dead House, appeared in Ireland in 2017 and was set in contemporary west Cork, an area of outstanding beauty devastated in the 19th century by the Great Famine. It deployed the horror genre to plumb the depths of the darkest horror in Irish history: by day, the bohemian characters cooked and drank and fell in love in a restored Famine cottage, but by night, dark spirits were unleashed. As a novel it was genuinely frightening; as an approach to an unfathomably dark period, it showed a writer alert to the effects of the past on the present, and an imagination willing to take risks to illustrate them.
In his last collection, The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind (2013), some of the stories – such as “Farmed Out”, about Ireland’s institutional abuse of children – were staggering. At his best, O’Callaghan creates characters who live with the reader. Characters who live with the writer, too, as evidenced by the reappearance of three from that collection in his second novel, My Coney Island Baby.
Michael, an Irish emigrant, and Caitlin, an IrishAmerican with writer’s block, have been meeting as lovers on Coney Island once a month for a quarter of a century. They are both unhappily married to other people. The novel unfolds over the course of six or seven hours, from noon on the promenade when the couple stagger through a winter gale, to their train journey back to Manhattan. Most of the book is set in by Billy O’Callaghan, Cape, £14.99 a cold hotel room, a “bed rented by the hour”, but the love Michael and Caitlin share is the kind that makes one little room an everywhere. “The room, he decides, will be sufficient for their needs, but only because they have carried love in here with them, in them.”
A dominant subject in O’Callaghan’s recent work is middle age. Studies have revealed that happiness is U-shaped and Michael and Caitlin, who are in their late 40s, are caught right in the trough. They both married young, then met one another soon after. Michael had “never known such a magnitude of sharing, both bodily and of the soul, with anyone else”.
The narrative swings between the past and the present, between Michael’s perspective and Caitlin’s. O’Callaghan writes his protagonists minutely and convincingly. These are two people who should be together but who have found themselves simultaneously on the straight and narrow, and the road less travelled. The question the novel asks of them, and of its reader, is whether they will continue down this path or retreat.
Coney Island in a January storm is a deserted, grim sight, “so fit for broken things, it has become their place”. While wandering, the couple can’t help but remember what it used to be, “a melding cacophony of a hundred simultaneous rackets eager for their piece of the day”. This disparity mirrors the gulf between Caitlin and Michael as they once were and who they are now. It also augurs ill for the future facing them.
My Coney Island Baby examines the scaffolding of middle age: duty, the fading of passion, the erosion of choices, looming mortality, a period in life when “what is gone feels far more immediate, more enlivened, than what tries to count as the here and now”. If this all sounds very sad, that’s because it is. The novel is a meditation on an often disappointing time and O’Callaghan doesn’t shy away from his subject. Michael’s “sallow face [is] rutted with terminal dread”. When he undresses, he leaves his vest on to cover his middle-age spread. Caitlin notes that “the sitting posture does him no favours”. But she loves him more than ever. Meanwhile, daylight is fading. The lovers are running out of time. Michael has told Caitlin that his wife, Barb, has terminal cancer. Caitlin is building up to revealing some bad news of her own. She “understands completely that, without Michael, she is alone” and that she has “stepped wrong and lost out on a soul connection”. Darkness falls and duty calls. The couple battle back through the storm and sit huddled together on the train, staring at a pair of young lovers across the aisle. In the closing pages, O’Callaghan’s prose reaches a pitch of emotional intensity that ensures these characters will linger with you long after the book is closed. Coney Island, New York City
Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know is published by Faber. To buy My Coney Island Baby for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.
My Coney Island Baby