From month to month, their routine barely deviates, yet a lot has changed … ageing has something to do with it … they have evolved to where they are now and to who they are, each massively influencing the other’s growth … people in love or in what they might in their own delusional state consider to be love tend to live their lives with others rather than themselves in mind. And that makes all the difference
Billy O’Callaghan’s beautifully written MY CONEY ISLAND BABY is about a long love affair possibly coming to an end.
Set over a few hours in Coney Island during the off-season (‘Coney Island feels done for. A rot has set in’), it tells the story of Caitlin and Michael, both married to other people, who have been meeting monthly in anonymous hotel rooms for at least twenty years, and there is a sense that this particular tryst might turn out to have been their last. The novel details the hours they spend together and fills in both their lives (childhood, marriages) and is very much a novel concerned with how our pasts and memories have a hold over us.
Michael’s wife Barb has been diagnosed with cancer; Caitlin’s husband Thomas seems clueless to his wife’s inner self.
The novel is filled with moments of disappointment; the sag and heft of middle-aged flesh; money troubles; illness, and it’s refreshing to read a novel that features grown-ups thinking and acting the way grown-ups do.
Michael is Irish, from Inisbofin, and much of his story concerns recollections of his father, who died alone while out digging potato drills. He thinks of Caitlin as
The two of them met in a bar twenty five years before, when both of them were newly married. She was 22, “already married but somehow still girlish”. Years later Michael looks at her and thinks she’s “a woman born to deceive … an angelic outer skin belying fiery lies within.”
As well as Barb’s cancer, Michael and Barb have endured grief. Their son, James, lived only fourteen weeks. For Michael, the death of their son ‘entrenched Barbara’s isolation … she was knocked a step out of time and into some in-between state from which she’d never quite returned.’ There is a lot of death in My Coney Island Baby.
Much of the novel concerns the disappointments and caution that come with age. Michael says: “When we’re young and our horizons have yet to burn, we take risks that become impossible later on. Time makes us afraid … when I was a kid, forty seemed old. Now I have fifty in my sights and I feel every minute of it.” Caitlin notes that his hand is ‘the hand of an old man, its strength waning.’
For Caitlin, the news about Barb’s cancer is awful, not least because she is a figure of mystery to her.
These past two and a half decades, give or take, Barb has existed along the periphery of her affair with Michael, a ghostly presence, tall and slim and statuesque, immaculately hewn yet blanketed in some eternal melancholy. Beautiful, if beauty is strict and limiting itself to chiselled and Romanesque, but never less than pretty to any eye, her corn-coloured hair worn forever short and full, running a gamut of perms, bobs, bell-cuts and pageboy looks, always obliviously underlining some definition of stylish.
Their hotel room is “the sort of room suited to women on the run, and travelling salesmen, and those who wish to hide a while without being found, those who need time alone to think of good or even bad reasons why they shouldn’t hang themselves.”
But the privacy of the room ‘has set them free’ for now they can be intimate. She notes how ‘his shoulders rounded and gone to fat … the first marked suggestion of a bald spot’, and when they make love, he doesn’t remove his t-shirt, embarrassed as he is by his weight.
His body keeps no secrets; from statuesque to an entirely different kind of artful, she has accompanied the evolution, or devolution, and is as familiar with his flesh as she is with her own … It amuses her and in equal measures serves to break her heart just a little bit that even after hundreds of intimate occasions they have shared he still remains so bashful and embarrassed to be all the way naked for her.
For him, Caitlin’s body is a mystery. Her bones have ‘something of the galaxies about her substructure, cathedrals of mystery stretching beyond his comprehension, and every cell fascinates.’
“With Thomas, her husband, what she has is a soft kind of love, something that has been watered down by time until the nature of it feels no longer enough. Thomas is a good man – a better man, perhaps, than she deserves – but he drums to a practical beat, and love to him means saucepans at Christmas, or steak knives, love to him is another bullet-point on a long list, and never a priority.” In contrast, with Michael ‘she can be the version of herself that she hopes and likes to believe is the real her. His flaws are worth enduring for what he brings to her world.’
The setting, a tourist spot in winter, affords O Callaghan the opportunity for some brilliant descriptions of a place that was once booming, when ‘the hotels were all silk and roses … the men wore fine suits to come here, and the women, even the molls, floated” … Now though, the Ferris Wheel has “a candy-coloured exoskeleton” like ‘the fossilised remains from prehistory’ … the comparison of a ruined and derelict landscape with the late stages of the love-affair is obvious but never feels laboured or heavy-handed.
Caitlin’s view of Michael’s memories of growing up in Inishbofin is that the island was “somewhere that turned its men old in a hurry, that aged them hard against rain and gales. And it was a place difficult to abandon in any way other than the physical.” Michael used to keep a creased photo of his father, Sean, and ‘she knew how deeply Michael hurt with the thought that the old man had had to die alone, in the westernmost corner of the low field behind their cottage’
In the hotel room Caitlin is waiting for the right moment to tell him that her husband, Thomas, will probably be promoted at work and that the promotion will mean they’ll have to move to Illinois.
Caitlin is a writer. “Books had never been anything less than a kind of sorcery” By 19 her writing has started to develop, and she and Thomas are living together. Caitlin’s mother, Madge is bitter because her husband deserted her, and she represents a particular kind of Irish-American: “Beyond songs and soft words, Irishness for her had been punches in the mouth and the kind of physical and emotional poverty broken in the end only by an unannounced desertion.” She takes an instant dislike to Thomas; warns Caitlin that ‘he’ll knock you up’.
Caitlin has memories of her step-father, Pete, who had an abusive relationship with her mother, and who also abandons them; Caitlin also remembers the night that Pete, drunk, he’d taken her into his lap and put his down her pyjamas. She also remembers as a child having a scratch on her cheek from a fall that might ruin a school photo – ‘the pink mark catches eye, but it is also impossible to ignore the fact that she is not smiling for the camera”
When she meets Thomas it adds “a certain volatility to the world” and “at twenty years old, she can see no one else crowding her future” After they move in together she becomes more serious about her writing. “It had always been part of her, but now she began to believe that it was something to which she could commit herself happily for the rest of her life.” Part of her maturation as a writer involves examining her childhood memories closely.
Thomas becomes an accountant and Caitlin has already accepted the idea that there will be nobody else for her, that marriage was always a compromise, “a deal struck, a thing of give and take, of opening her legs when she didn’t particularly feel like it as well as when she did and of working to fulfil her half of perfecting a life together, or if perfect proved too high an aim then at least settling for bearable.”
While her writing improves (she has a short story published just weeks into the marriage), she has also met Michael who is now a fixture in her life. They met in a bar, flirted, danced. “Alcohol excused some things but couldn’t explain how being with him made her feel. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her husband, she told herself … Thomas had a kind of detached goodness” When she and Michael first sleep together there was ‘the sense of something sacred. Their bodies were freshly discovered landscapes, lush with ridges and undulations, dense from inch to inch with secrets’ The affair becomes something deeper: “when apart, they felt famished for each other, for the details of one another’s existence, and on the days they came together, even the smallest morsels of revelation were savoured.”
My Coney Island Baby is a novel of ageing and regret, dreams dashed and dreams deferred, and marks O’Callaghan as one of Ireland’s new writers to watch.