Greetings Hero – Stories by Aiden O’Reilly – Review by Helen O’Leary
This is a first collection of short stories by Aiden O’Reilly, who is a new addition to our strong tradition of short story writers. His collection has a modern and global feel with the stories set all over Europe, in Ireland and places unnamed. They sidestep our Irish obsession with a sense of place, and there is not a whiff of rural nostalgia to be found between the covers of this book. The stories are of travellers, and wanderers, settlers, and people searching for meaning or connection.
O’Reilly skips with ease between East and Western Europe and is equally adept at describing both places. From time spent living and working abroad he seems to be in a position where he understands both cultures allowing him a bit of wry observation without being overly deferential to either. A Polish character commenting on the effusive friendliness of the Irish says “You talk to your boss in the same way you talk to your best friend. A universe of equidistant humans.”
And he captures the distinction between our “blustery climate” and the Polish atmosphere where “the air was brittle, making a crystal of every glimmer”. Some stories are a reminder of the great change that occurred in Ireland during a decade of economic boom. A memorable story is “Contempt” that chronicles the experiences of Rueben, a college dropout who works on a construction site during the boom. At night he devours books about evolution and begins to regard the building site from the perspective of evolution where some men will survive, some adapt and some fail. Physically strong and hard working, Rueben ought to be one of the survivors but his humanity and well-intentioned efforts to help an immigrant woman that are his downfall.
The principal characters are generally male with women perched on the periphery, often providing an explanation for the main character’s behaviour. In “Unfinished Business” a married man blames his life long awkwardness around women on his Catholic schooling and he visits a nightclub hoping to erase his past with a future conquest. Some of the characters like Stefan in “A Fine Nobel Corpse” or Hans and Christoff in “Three Friends” leave you with conflicted feelings of both antipathy and sympathy towards them. But why draw the trouble of a real woman on your-self when you can assemble your own? The story “Self-Assembly” describes Eugene’s relationship with a life size doll delivered in a box. It is darkly fantastical and brings to mind Günter Grass and The Tin Drum whereby the extraordinary is written about in a slightly grim and ordinary way. The collection is crammed full however a more pruned back version might have given the stories more room to breath. The longest story called “Greetings, Hero” about the enigmatically silent Michal is practically a novella in itself.
Overall I found the tone of the book to be dark but that’s also a testament to the power of O’Reilly’s writing. For a first collection O’Reilly has a unique and interesting style that it feels like he has been honing for some time. We look forward to reading more.