Nationality: Irish. Born: Dublin, Ireland, 1963. Education: University College, Dublin, B.A. 1986; briefly attended Oxford University. Family: Married. Career: Worked with British Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, 1980s; journalist, screenwriter, writer for television, and author. Lives in Dublin. Awards: Sunday Tribune First Fiction Award, 1989; New Irish Writer of the Year Award, 1989; Time Out Magazine Writing Prize, 1990; Miramax Screenwriting Award, 1995; In Dublin Magazine Award for Best New Irish Play, 1995.
Cowboys and Indians. Dublin, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991.
Desperadoes. London, Flamingo, 1993.
Finbar's Hotel (serial novel, with others), devised and edited byDermot Bolger. Dublin, New Island Books, 1997.
The Salesman. London, Secker & Warburg, 1998; New York, Picador, 1999.
True Believers. London, Flamingo, 1992.
Red Roses and Petrol. Dublin, Project Arts Centre, 1995; London, Methuen, 1995.
The Weeping of Angels. Dublin, Gate Theatre, 1997.
Even the Olives Are Bleeding: The Life and Times of Charles Donnelly. Dublin, New Island Books, 1992.
The Secret World of the Irish Male (humorous essays). Dublin, NewIsland Books, 1994.
Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America. London, Picador, 1996;Boulder, Colorado, Robert Rinehart Publishing, 1996.
The Irish Male at Home and Abroad (humorous essays). Dublin, NewIsland Books, 1996.* * *
In the hard, laconic, yet strangely evocative prose of Joseph O'Connor, the modern novel has gained a new, intriguing individual voice. Choosing leading characters who are often unattractive and sometimes downright unpleasant, and tracing their adventures in gritty urban and rural wasteland settings, he writes without sentiment while at the same time involving the reader emotionally with his creations. This is nowhere more true than in his first, and arguably his finest, novel, Cowboys and Indians, where he follows the doomed efforts of Dublin student/musician Eddie Virago to make his name on the London punk rock scene. Handsome, confident Eddie with his outrageous Mohican hairstyle and outsized ego is one of a class of would-be leaders who graduated from University College only to find their achievements fall woefully short of their grandiose dreams. Like them, Eddie's ambitions are doomed to failure, his wisecracking "cool" exterior shielding the vulnerable, bewildered child of a broken marriage who struggles as vainly in his relationships as in his search for fame. First seen throwing up on the ferry from Dublin, he encounters the spiky exile Marion Mangan—surely one of the most shrewish, quarrelsome "heroines" ever created—and the pair embark on a tense, permanently fraught relationship that continues through most of the book. Through Eddie's eyes the reader takes in the soulless horror of Margaret Thatcher's Britain with its desert of industrial estates and aspiring yuppies with their banal management jargon, and glimpses the underside of the music scene in grimy clubs and out-of-town acid raves. O'Connor switches adroitly from London to Dublin to rural Donegal, one nightmare scenario following another as Eddie flounders in a morass of drink, drugs, and sex, his best efforts forever thwarted. His author presents him without excuses, showing his selfishness, his facility for easy face-saving lies, his ability to explain away his cowardice and stupidity. Yet for all that, it's impossible not to identify with him and want him to come through unscathed. As Marion's dark secret reveals itself and Eddie drifts closer to disaster, kidding himself all the while that things aren't so bad, the reader is drawn after him, dreading what lies ahead but hoping that somehow he's going to survive it. A powerful, accomplished work, Cowboys and Indians combines wry social comment and hard-hitting prose with frequent bursts of pathos and humor. With it, O'Connor established his reputation as a novelist and found the voice that informs his later writings.
Eddie Virago returns in the opening story of True Believers, where in "Last of the Mohicans" he impresses a fellow exile in 1980s London with his cool, assured style, undermined somewhat by his lowly status as hamburger salesman and unpublished author. In "The Wizard of Oz" an Irish youngster arrives from the Antipodes to be groomed by a slick, know-all Irish yuppie, only to discover in amusingly detailed fashion that the emperor has no clothes. Elsewhere, the author ranges from comedy through the unrequited love story of "Ailsa" to the atmospheric tension of "The Long Way Home," where a fleeing husband picks up a mysterious hitch-hiker on a lonely country road. More often, his stories combine several of these aspects, as in "The Bedouin Feast," where nightmare slapstick is blended with the wry sadness of betrayal, or the title story, where the death of a strange old woman signals the end of the narrator's childhood and the loss of his faith. Throughout, O'Connor matches sharp dialogue with adept character sketches, while making some probing comments of his own. This is certainly the case in "The Hills Are Alive," which details the doomed love affair between a British soldier and an Irish Republican Army volunteer, their brief episodes of warmth and closeness blasted to destruction by two opposing armies, each believing itself to be in the right. The description of their funerals, both marked by gunshots over the grave and a man in a suit saying "something about freedom," is a tragic epitaph to a struggle that has outlasted its early ideals. True Believers, with its sharply focused blend of incident and internalized thought, shows O'Connor the novelist as a skilful writer of short fiction.
His novel Desperadoes is set in war-ravaged Nicaragua, where at the height of the conflict between the Sandinista government and the Contra rebels Frank Little and his estranged wife Eleanor arrive to identify the body of their musician son Johnny. Discovering that the corpse is not their son, they set off without official permission into the war zone in the company of Johnny's old band, the Desperados de Amor, in the hope of finding him. O'Connor phases their adventures with neat flashback recollections from the lives of the Irish couple, detailing their passionate early love and its progression to a traumatic, disastrous marriage and separation. His vivid depiction of a country in the throes of civil war, where ordinary men and women struggle to carve out a threadbare existence in the face of death and devastation, is matched by his skill in revealing the complex natures of his characters and their tangled past. Johnny and the band members are drawn with neat, sharp strokes as the novel moves forward, but it is Frank and Eleanor who take center stage and who most engage the reader's attention. Hot-tempered, unreasonable, often exasperating in their stubbornness, they nevertheless emerge as strong, endearing creations. Through them O'Connor traces the tender shoots of love and ponders what happens to it when things go wrong. Desperadoes combines the pace of an action novel with deep psychological insight, and is a triumph for its author.
The Salesman is the story of Billy Sweeney, a seller of satellite dishes in the Dublin area, who in the summer of 1994 decides to take the law into his own hands. His beloved daughter Maeve, hospitalised and left in a coma by a gang of young robbers, lies on the brink of death, and one of her attackers has escaped from custody. Tracking the thug down, Sweeney plots his own revenge and eventually moves to execute it. Events, though, take several unexpected turns, and long before the story ends Billy is forced to a painful reconsideration of his motives and the meaning of his own life. Writing of these happenings in a diary addressed to his comatose child, Billy Sweeney emerges as an unhappy, driven man with a troubled past that—like that of Frank and Eleanor Little in Desperadoes —stems from his early love and wrecked marriage. His uneasy relationship with the escaped gangster Donal Quinn echoes that earlier partnership in its violent, rapid shifts of mood, and in the end is headed for horror and mayhem. Here, as in his earlier novels, the author indicates the blight of alcoholism and the drug culture, both of which are shown as ugly symptoms of a deeper underlying malaise. Powerful, often funny, and just as often heartbreakingly sad, The Salesman is a many-layered work that once more makes telling points while moving swiftly through its pages, and abounds with the customary one-liners—a waiting room is "the colour of a cancerous lung," a stretch of road "smooth as a politician's lies." Like the novels and stories that precede it, it confirms O'Connor's own significance as a leading modern writer in his native country and beyond.
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