September 11, 2020: “The Mustache in 2010” by Joseph O’Neill

A good Friday to you, Story366!

Tonight we would normally be traveling to some localish high school to watch our oldest perform with his marching band. Since his team is on the road today, they are not playing, not traveling, because of the COVID restrictions. It’s too bad, as we went to the home game last week and really got a taste for it. I went to see my nephew play, who’s 37 now, meaning it’s been twenty years since I’d last been to a high school football game. But we had a good time last week, enjoyed seeing our son play, march in and out, even warm up. And heck, we started to root for his high school team to win—they did not (in fact, they’re historically bad, losing 54 of 55 recently). Maybe next time. Maybe next year? In any case, go Marching Band!

Today I read from Irish writer Joseph O’Neill‘s 2017 collection, Good Trouble, out from Pantheon. O’Neill’s garnered quite a career for himself, mostly with his novels, and includes a PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction. Have I read any of his work before? I don’t think I have, so again, Story366 bails me out of an embarrassing blind spot in my contemporary repertoire.

The first story in the book is “Pardon Edward Snowden” and is about this poet, Mark McClain, who receives an email, asking him to sign a petition for the release of Edward Snowden. The request comes from a younger, hipper, edgier poet that Mark doesn’t care for; this younger poet has written the petition in the form of a poem, a poem with some terrible rhymes. Mark confides in his poet friend, Liz, who likes this younger poet. A lot of this story is in Mark’s head—literally—as he confronts his own feelings of inadequacy, exploring what he thinks about contemporary letters. What’s slyly left out is what Mark thinks about Edward Snowden, whether or not he deserved to be released, as Mark is too stuck down his own wormhole of self-exploration and second-guessing to even answer the base question.

“The Death of Billy Joel” features Tom, who plans a golf vacation in Tampa with his closest friends for his fortieth birthday. He invites thirteen guys and only three bother to reply—and one of those pulls out at the last second. The guys fly down, golf a lot, and go out to dinner the two nights they’re there. Tom hopes for something more, an unforgettable adventure—maybe including some strip clubs—which his two friends shy away from. Tom has an epiphany of sorts on this trip, maybe multiple epiphanies, as he starts to reflect on the nature of friendship, how those guys he knew in college didn’t even respond to his email, guys he thought were his lifelong bros. He also questions what he does, how he has fun, as the trip is just a bunch of golf and beers and chicken wings in a place warmer than where he lives, not really worth all the effort, or disappointment. Oh, and the title: He misinterprets the news feed on TV on Friday night and thinks Billy Joel is dead the whole time; he’s not.

“The Mustache in 2010” is my favorite of the lot, as it’s kind of indescribable, one of those stories that’s unlike any story I’ve ever read, and overall, an impressive piece of fiction. This one starts off with a deconstruction of facial hair around the year 2010, the patterns and fashions and configurations that were in at the time. There’s a real omniscience to the narration, as if this is some grand proclamation, or perhaps someone’s masters thesis, as a lot of thought is put into explaining these whimsical choices that define an era (this, coming from me, who’s had the same facial hair for twenty or so years).

Next we’re introduced to Alex and Viv, a young couple living in New York with their two kids. Alex has a thing where he only shaves every third Monday, meaning he practically grows a full beard every three weeks. Instead of completely shaving, he’s taken to leaving some designated pattern on his face, mutton chops, goatee, cop mustache, and the like. Viv thinks it’s funny as a running joke, a prank, and, well, that ties them to the story title and that first part of the story.

Alex and Viv attend a charity auction at their kid’s school, where they meet up with another couple, friends of theirs, and the woman’s parents, visiting from Chicago. For some reason, Viv takes a disliking to her friend’s dad, and when he tries to buy the last lot of the night—a lawyer offering free will service—Viv not only goes out of her way to outbid Dad, but humiliate him as well.

That’s the story up to this point, very unpredictable without much of a sense of the plot or characters, especially written with this elevated omniscience. Things get really nutty at this point, though, as O’Neill decides to introduce an I, as in a first-person narrator. The day after the auction incident, Viv has lunch with this narrator, who’s been telling the story the whole time, apparently. The last couple of pages shift to this narrator, one of Viv’s dear friends. We then jump forward and realize she’s reminiscing about this lunch, what Viv revealed about her behavior at this auction, many years later. The woman gets all introspective about what this incident meant to her, her views on her friend, and friendship in general. Tell me you saw this as the ending of a story titled “The Mustache in 2010,” beginning as this story does.

Joseph O’Neill’s stories in Good Trouble seem to do that, reminisce about the past, then wonder what the past really is, how it plays into the grand scheme, let alone the present. I like the complexity of O’Neill’s characters, as well as his approach to story, how he gets inside these anxious, paranoid minds and kicks around for a bit. It’s a truly unique book, and I’m glad I read it.

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