In Billy O’Callaghan’s poetic new novel, a man and a woman arrive at a dreary hotel near a desolate Brooklyn beach. They’re partners in a long-running deception, and this will be the setting for “their latest crime.”
Michael and Caitlin aren’t outlaws. Their transgressions are of the domestic sort. Middle-aged and married to other people, they’ve been meeting for monthly trysts since their 20s. They’re in love with each other, but for many reasons, they’ve never considered telling — let alone leaving — their spouses.
“My Coney Island Baby” covers familiar narrative ground, but there’s nothing formulaic about this talented Irishman’s second novel. While some writers race from one plot point to another, O’Callaghan does the opposite — he excels at slowing down time. An attentive portraitist, he writes beautifully, and at length, about gestures, glances and other fleeting moments. And he isn’t bashful about pausing to consider the human body’s “planes and hollows,” “whorls of cartilage” and fine hairs, “shining as hoarfrost.” There can’t be many novelists who are in less of a hurry.
It’s a punishing winter day as Michael and Caitlin meet once again in deserted, offseason Coney Island, “a place for the damned to drift.” As they fall into bed, O’Callaghan suggests that both have arrived at crossroads, and that their relationship is endangered.
Caitlin was once a promising fiction writer, but lately, she’s lost the creative urge. Thomas, her husband, sleeps around, which assuages some of the guilt she feels about her own extramarital activities. Recently, Thomas told Caitlin that he’s up for a promotion, that they might move to Illinois.
Michael, meanwhile, has lived in the U.S. for decades, but he’s always felt unmoored since leaving his native Ireland. He and his wife, Barbara, lost their only child. Their marriage has never recovered. Now Barbara has cancer, causing Michael to reassess some of his choices.
If this is the end of the affair, O’Callaghan is determined to capture it in extraordinary detail. He has a sculptor’s eye for the “ridges and undulations” of his characters’ bodies, be it “the corrugating jut of [Caitlin’s] ribcage” or the “darkish crop circles” of hair on Michael’s chest. As Michael listens to Caitlin’s breathing and watches her bite her lip, he’s silently cataloging her every movement.
“Each detail held its own singular importance,” he thinks, “yet also lent support to everything else.” You could say something similar about O’Callaghan’s narrative style. His plot may not be expansive, but he’s intensely in touch with his characters’ sensory experiences.
Readers will note that O’Callaghan refuses to chide his characters for their bad decisions. And yet, their regret is apparent. “Love … is the story we make up to justify all the rotten things we do,” Caitlin says. A small story told at close range, “My Coney Island Baby” is suffused with great, painful beauty.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
My Coney Island Baby
By: Billy O'Callaghan.
Publisher: Harper, 244 pages, $25.99.