The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind by Billy O’Callaghan

thingswelose What to say about Things we Lose (New Island Press, 228 pages) a book that stunned me, time and again. I might call Billy O’Callaghan a “writer’s writer,” if that term did not immediately consign a writer to obscurity. (In the USA, Richard Yates is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” and until the movie Revolutionary Road, few people, apart from those who taught in MFA programs, knew his name.)

I would like to invent a new way to describe what I think Billy O’Callaghan will leave as his literary legacy. I would call him a “human’s human” (with a pen) or an “explorer’s explorer” of our dreams. I would call him a poet of the spirit. Or, maybe, to use a more prosaic analogy, he is a housekeeper who assiduously dusts the cluttered rooms we keep closed, even from our conscious minds.

In the moving first story of the collection, “Zhuangzi Dreamed He Was A Butterfly,” a husband and wife grieve a daughter’s death, and the husband explores the idea of time. “When you think about it, there is just so much that can go wrong. If any one of those tiny workings should crack or spit apart, then that’s it; as fast as a finger-snap the whole thing comes grinding to a halt. One small break and all time stops.” Anyone who has lost a child knows that the speeding up or slowing down of time, the infinite replaying of the disaster-that-might-have-been-averted, forms only one side of the prism through which a grieving parent views the past.

In “Lila” the narrator, riding the L, spots a familiar face. “In the two decades since moving to Chicago I have thought of her often, the way we all do with close friends who for a time mean more than the world itself to us but then, for whatever reason, fall out of our lives.” True, right? We’ve all thought this at one time or another.

As the story progresses, we learn why their paths diverged; the narrator must come to terms with what happened before they lost touch. When the story returns to the present, the reader is fully anchored in the physical world. “Seconds build, full of the train’s dull inner-ear heartbeat, a smooth enough sensation, but only by comparison, and yet it felt as though time were moving in reverse, taking us out of ourselves back to some better state.”

I wish I had written that sentence. Here’s another.

“He was wearing yesterday’s wool shirt, and the fibres held his musk in a way that was not pleasant. She felt an urge to pull back, but couldn’t, because his big hands held gentle but secure against her hips. Trapped, all she could do, short of insulting or embarrassing him by making a fuss, was pray that God would grant her the small mercy of not having this stench forever attach itself in her mind to what was supposed to be one of the most special and precious of moments of her entire life.”

As writers we strive to use all five senses, but I’ve rarely seen a writer evoke so much emotion from a sense of smell.

Each story in this collection invites readers into the inner torments of its characters. I could not race through these stories, nor did I want to. When I finished each one, I went back to the beginning and read the story again, only to discover moments of lightness, moments when a character turned away from a choice that might have led down a different path, or moments when a character settled for what was and gave up on what might have been.

Some people talk about our “illusions,” as if there were some all-seeing Eye that could pass judgment on what is, or is not, the right way of understanding life’s confusions. Instead of illusions, Billy O’Callaghan talks about “dreams.” For the characters in “Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby,” “The Matador,” and many of these stories, dreams are where people find relief from the weight of their losses, disappointments, self-inflicted wounds, and limitations.

This is writing at its finest.

Marylee MacDonald, author of Bonds of Love & Blood, 2016

Excerpt from “The Forge”:  The blight had come and then come back, and the first year was terrible but only the beginning. The shellfish were lost when the ocean brought a red tide, and the second year the herring stayed north, out of reach of the boats. Those that could got to survive a while on rats, insects, any birds that they could catch, but as fodder diminished weakness grew until, soon enough, there was nothing. And it was bad for everyone. A mile over, towards Allihies, a fisherman’s wife was lost in birthing. One of the women saved the child through butchery, but it was born small and seven weeks early and died that first night. The fisherman sent the woman out, then blocked the door and set fire to the thatch. The house took almost an hour to go. There were three more children in the house and those who had come down to see said they never woke, that they were already dead from smoke before the flames reached them. And the fisherman stood at the window, staunch as a tree, gazing out into the darkness, until the roof came down around him. In the days after, the neighbours raked through the embers, collecting what could be salvaged.

The Master kept a hedge school down in one of the back acres, sometimes down on the beach. The children came from as far away as Cahirkeen in the north and Knockroe to the south. Men and women, too, as things began to deteriorate. He taught them to read and add up, but mostly he instructed them in prayer, in the ways of worship. The priests had come, of course, generations of them, and they’d thrived during the better times when prayers never had to be more than easy words. They were tolerated but couldn’t quite belong, and they never penetrated the fabric because the stories they told had no grounding here. This land had its own gods, ancient when the likes of Christ was young. These gods controlled the sun and the tide and the seasons, and they were cruel and vengeful to disobedience but generous to loyalty, protecting those who knew how to properly ask. Teaching was required, the old faith needed awakening, especially once the potatoes turned putrid in the fields and everything stopped growing. The congregation needed to make amends for what had been abandoned.

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