Wednesday, May 1, 2019

MY CONEY ISLAND BABY :: Billy O'Callaghan

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

Two lovers, Michael and Caitlin, fight against the frigid weather as they walk along the bleak, deserted Coney Island boardwalk. The skyline is "a bullying slob of grey running into grey, slaughtering detail and definition." The air, "mean with cold," highlights their intimacy as they brace together against the wind, draw close and speak into each other's breath. Then Michael softly says, "Barb's got cancer," and realization breaks through the veneer--Michael and Caitlin are married to others, carrying on an illicit affair.

Billy O'Callaghan begins My Coney Island Baby with a lyrical struggle of a couple against nature, allowing the reader to invest in their relationship before providing any opportunity to drop the hammer of judgment. He then winds through Michael and Caitlin's histories--separately, within their respective marriages and through their monthly meetings over the course of their 25-year relationship, fleshing out the humans that underlie the indiscretions.

O'Callaghan won the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award for his short fiction, and his prose displays minute attention, finding beauty and meaning in the smallest of details, every page a goldmine of life reflected in its elements, even those that are worn down and busted. The work is infused with musicality, from the jazz saxophone scoring Michael and Caitlin's first meeting to the resonant sounds of an infant on life support. Over the course of the day, Michael and Caitlin's secret but sustaining relationship must bear up to new facts and long-denied decisions.

STREET SENSE: I went into this one blind (because I picked it by the cover) and was very pleasantly surprised by the writing. I marked more passages than I could ever hope to need. I was highly impressed with how O'Callaghan invested the reader in Michael and Caitlin before allowing them to be judged and continued to humanize them after landing the blow that they were adulterers. Until you've walked in someone's shoes down a stormy boardwalk, judge not.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  When she spoke, she did so in a voice low enough to steam, and as Coltrane or Parker or Ornette Coleman or whoever it was dragged soul and then spirit squealing across the barroom ceiling, he could do nothing but lean in to catch what she was offering, to hear her words and breathe of her.

COVER NERD SAYS: Score another point for cover gut. Lone couple forging their way down an ocean boardwalk? Beautiful image and color scheme? Check and check. For some reason, this cover evoked difficulty to me rather than romance, which is I'm sure why I picked it. There are almost more romantic  elements of this than anything else - the title rings a little of romance, the author font, the colors, the 'couple against the world' imagery, the delicate ironwork of the structures. I'm not altogether sure what offset that enough to intrigue me, but I'm happy it did.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.

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