Where It All Went Wrong


First Person

In February, I got an email out of the blue from the director of the Cork International Short Story Festival—the same festival associated with the annual Frank O’Connor Award, worth 25,000 Euros. My first thought: Oh, shit, break out the champagne!

Back on planet earth, I wasn’t even short-listed. But I was being invited to read at the festival, and they would pay my travel expenses, put me up in a nice hotel, and—how could you say no?—provide free gourmet sandwiches for the duration of my time in Cork. Bless the good people programming the festival; in a year when a lot of excellent writers had published story collections, I wasn’t entirely sure why they wanted me to come. Possibly because, in my bio note, I always begin by saying, “Will Boast was born in England and grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin.” I was, in some sense, a local boy. From 1982 to 1986, my family lived in Newcastle West, a small village in County Limerick about an hour and a half drive from Cork. After twenty-five years away, I finally had an excuse to go back.

Coming into Cork, I got my first twinge of homecoming. I didn’t know this city (any childhood memories of visiting Cork are utterly gone), and yet the rolling landscape, the narrow streets, and even the color of the houses seemed already mapped out in my mind. Then I got in a cab and started speaking to the driver. I thought at first he was German, so thick and strange was his accent.

About the Short Story Festival, I have only the most favorable report. What tear in the cultural fabric have you slipped into when you suddenly spend three full days talking short stories, listening to absurdly accomplished writers from around the globe read their absurdly good short stories, drinking Beamish and Murphy’s with said writers, and all the while, mirable dictu, sandwiches keep appearing, gourmet sandwiches, free gourmet sandwiches—including, I must say, the best egg sandwich I’ve had in my life—and, well, what strange and beautiful thing is this, and why can’t it happen more often and everywhere, all the time? Well, because “no one reads short stories.”

This, at least, was the hard reality I was asked to address in an interview I found myself doing with the Irish Times. To which I responded, more or less: What do we expect? Over a century plus of constant refinement, the short story has become a rarified form—gloomy and abrupt almost by default. Often, short stories take on the rather bracing emotional task of looking at a life and asking, Where exactly did it all go wrong? I love the form dearly, but I’ve never wondered why readers don’t flock.

Back to egg sandwiches for a moment. I ate a lot of them growing up. Egg sandwiches, egg curries, Scotch eggs, eggs and chips, boiled eggs and soldiers … Back in England, where my brother and I were born, my parents were practically scraping along the egg-shell-littered bottom of working poverty. Our move to Newcastle West—my dad had been hired to help start up a new factory for a plastics company—was supposed to be the end of egg sandwiches. Whether my mom thought this worth moving away from all our family and friends, I’ll never know. As my aunt, her sister, put it to me recently, Dad would have taken Rory (my younger brother) and me along whether Mom liked it or not. He was dead set on getting ahead, and damn the consequences.

And what were the consequences? Four years later, Dad’s new company asked him to come over to their headquarters in the Midwest. Mom relented again and found herself wracked with homesickness in yet another foreign backwater. My parents fell not so gently out of love. Then Mom got sick, first with ovarian and then with brain cancer. After we buried her, Rory went on a tear, partying right up until the night he and his two best friends smashed into a semi at seventy miles an hour, drunk and speeding on their way to a kegger—at which point my dad, shattered by this double grief, started drinking himself to death.

The Irish are famed for their hospitality, their gentle self-effacing humor, their cheery, come-what-may fatalism. These are charming traits—until you actually try to accomplish anything in Ireland. Picking up your reserved rental car, for example. As he explained that, somehow or another he didn’t actually have a car for me, Eddie, my Enterprise representative, was so apologetic, so sympathetic, so conciliatory, commiseration raised to an art form—“Ah, you’ve been having rotten luck. Sure it will come right for you in the end”—I could almost overlook that fact that he wasn’t actually doing anything about it. This was not the only time I encountered this decidedly Irish air of genial incompetence. A stereotype no doubt—still, based on many accounts, my father, charged with getting a multi-million Euro plant up and running, was routinely driven insane by the very un-Anglo Saxon tendencies of his local line crew.

A full day later I was on the road. A narrow two-lane highway narrowed to a two-lane road and then to simply a lane, the tall hedges ticking past as I put my Ford Mondeo through its paces. Trees canopied the road as I tunneled deeper into my past. The view opened up onto patchwork fields and low, green hills studded with wind turbines. Three times, I found my accelerative desires stymied—tractors. I wasn’t just heading back into a personal past but an economic one. (My aunt tells me a story about Mom getting caught for miles behind a tractor hauling hay and finally overtaking it to discover it was a horse and cart.) Newcastle West still touts its business friendly tax concessions. Coming into town, I saw a number of housing developments—and a group of locals protesting recent foreclosures and evictions.

Chicago, San Francisco, New York, London, and Berlin aside, a large part of me is still tuned to small town life. Still, I hadn’t expected Newcastle West to be quite this small. After parking, I wandered around the town square (vague memories flitting around me) down to the river and then—well, where was the rest of this place? What seemed in childhood so vast, infinite even, had become eminently blinkable. Next to the Bank of Ireland stood a shop where you could pawn gold jewelry. A crafts market, the Red Door Market, turned out to be just a few rather sparse stalls in a cinderblock garage.

Returning to the river, I came to a bridge where a family stood speaking to one another in Irish Gaelic. Looking down at the water, I had my first flash of recognition. This was where Rory, Mom, Dad, and I came on dark, windy autumn afternoons. Rory and I played Poohsticks here, a game we learned from Mom reading us Winnie the Pooh in which you drop twigs into the current and race them to the downstream side of the bridge. I hadn’t thought about this in years—decades. Still, it seemed scant. Was this all I could retrieve from our four years here, from my own transit into the age of reason?

Following a lane running past a bottling plant, I came out onto the common. What loomed somewhere in my memory was picking mushrooms on a field watched over by craggy trees wreathed in morning mist. If the scene was not entirely clear, it was nonetheless palpable, part of me since there’s been a me. It’s often said that we’re haunted by memories. Sometimes I think it’s the other way around: we’re the ones who do the haunting. I kept hoping I’d come around a bend, the picture would snap into focus, all the time between me and this place would fall away, and I’d be a child again. There were, it turned out, a series of fields cut up by hedges and wire fences. A mother was pushing a pram across a rugby pitch, framed by its uprights. Having brushed up against the living past, I turned back with only an eerie feeling of resonance.

I meant to look for our old house, but somehow I’d forgotten to ask my grandmother or aunt for an address. I must have expected I’d simply happen on the place. After getting directions from a man selling firewood, I found the factory where my dad worked—the very symbol of my dad’s heedless, if minor, ambitions—that monstrous building with its echoing rooms filled with hulking hydraulic equipment that swallowed him up till late each night and on most weekends. At first, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. The building looked the right era (squat 80s functionalism), but it was tiny. It’s power over me drained away in an instant.

I lingered in the parking lot. There was still the convent school where Rory and I were taught Irish and the nuns renamed me Liam, and the painted travelers’ caravans I remembered like a picture postcard. And what about our family friends, the Caseys, and our childhood pals next-door, Colum and Declan? Surely if I asked at one of the pubs …. But it was already two o’clock, and I had to be back at the festival by four to read, back to the itinerant life that had brought me here again and taken me so far away.

I looked around me. Was this it, the place where it all started to go wrong? The sun was shining, the sky a wan autumn blue, the factory drab and harmless. I drove away, over the river, past the locals protesting evictions, and I felt sleek and light. I put the pedal down as the meager road slipped back into the tunnel of trees.

Will Boast is the author of Power Ballads.