The Paper Man by Billy O’Callaghan
May 2, 2023
“The Paper Man is a haunting story gorgeously crafted with subtle themes of identity, nationalism, dislocation, lost love, and the price of fame.”
Billy O’Callaghan’s The Paper Man slowly unveils a love story affected by pivotal world events. It weaves a compelling story in two time frames brought together from one man’s search for identity that spans two countries and leaves an impact on multiple generations. The story enthralls on many levels. It’s a deeply human one that takes its inspiration from the life of a celebrated historical figure who suffered the ramifications of the Holocaust.
It is 1980s Cork, Ireland, and 41-year-old Jack Shine’s life is now changed. In the dark, just before sleep, he whispers to his wife as much as to himself, “You think you know yourself. You fill yourself up with what you can, you grab what’s going and hold on. And then something like this happens, and suddenly you’re empty all over again.”
The emptiness Jack refers to concerns the death of his mother when he was age ten. What he knows of himself is that he is well-loved by the relatives who raised him, and that his mother, Rebekah, “had arrived here from Vienna, as vibrant and cosmopolitan a city as any in Europe . . . she’d originally been country born and bred and had kept her preference for silences and slower ways.” Jack understands that his young, Jewish mother had fled Vienna on the cusp of WWII to be out of harm’s way and found safe haven in Cork, with the family of her father’s brother. But because of his age when she died, Jack knows little of Rebekah’s backstory, including the identity of his father. His relatives are equally unaware of the details that led to Jack’s birth, having asked no questions when Rebekah arrived in Cork pregnant and unable to speak the language.
Local stevedore Jack lives down the street with his wife and daughter from the house in which he was raised. Now that his original family home is on the market, he clears out its contents and finds “a twine-bound grey cardboard shoebox . . . bearded in dust and probably decades hidden,” in which a series of faded newspaper clippings, love letters, and photographs are neatly preserved. The letters are written in German and addressed to his mother. “The one-sided nature of the letters, especially when considered in total, only raises further questions and deepens the sense of mystery.” What Jack recalls of his mother is that “she is timid, silent to a fault, and easily cowed, the kind to hold herself to smallness in any room.” Although he fears what the shoebox might reveal, something within him must know. Because his nearby father-in-law speaks fluent German, Jack dares to solicit his involvement. And so begins Jack’s search for identity—his father’s, and by extension, his own.
It is the dawn of WWII in 1938 Vienna, and the whole of the region puts their sense of pending doom aside in favor of the last-gasping breath of patriotism, as the Austrian and German soccer teams face off, on the last day the Austrian flag flies in front of 60,000 exuberant fans. The symbolic significance of the match cannot be overstated, when onto the playing field strolls Matthias Sindelar, the Austrian team player everyone has come to see.
Matthias Sindelar is larger than life. Regaled as the finest living soccer player, his moniker, the Paper Man, is aptly given. “When he runs, even at thirty-five, it is like watching a great dancer, that same godly elegance of power, grace, and musicality . . . he glides and slaloms among them . . . every touch, pass and dribble becomes a small glory in and of itself, an exhibition in the purest sense.” An object of Austrian pride, “The press loved him because in everything he did he was pure story. Mozart with a football.”
With all eyes upon him at the last match before the war, Sindelar is unable to resist the opportunity to publicly snub his opponents, and consequently draws the long gaze of the Gestapo when he performs a mocking gesture before a riveted crowd that feels like “a colosseum moment.”
Sindelar, reputably a ladies’ man, has his heart captured by young and innocent Rebekah from the village of Kaumberg. “The mismatch was instantly apparent: at the time of their initial encounter she had only just turned nineteen and was every bit the country innocent . . . The thirteen-year age difference felt like a hurdle impossible to overcome.” As their relationship evolves into something profound, so does tension over Germany’s occupation of Austria, setting the stage for the pair to become star-crossed lovers.
O’Callaghan’s sense of place in The Paper Man’s two time frames is cinematic. The historical accuracy of streets, buildings, and cafés in 1938 Vienna is vivid, and the humble neighborhoods of working-class, 1980s Cork are alive all the way to the waterfront docks.
The author’s knowledge of soccer’s breakneck speed dynamic is displayed with breathtaking minutiae, striking a fine balance between those cheering from the stands and those playing on the field. O’Callaghan’s use of language is the life force of the story. His long sentences are sonorous and poetic; no detail is left unattended in his masterfully fluid prose.
The Paper Man is a haunting story gorgeously crafted with subtle themes of identity, nationalism, dislocation, lost love, and the price of fame. The story informs and intrigues the most discerning reader of literary and historical fiction, and will linger long after its final page.
Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.
Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork in 1974, and is the author of four short story collections: In Exile (2008, Mercier Press), In Too Deep (2009, Mercier Press), The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind (2013, New Island Books, winner of a 2013 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award and selected as Cork’s One City, One Book for 2017), and The Boatman (2020, Jonathan Cape and Harper (U.S.A.)), as well as the novels The Dead House (2017, Brandon/O’Brien Press and 2018, Arcade/Skyhorse (USA)), My Coney Island Baby, (2019, Jonathan Cape and Harper (U.S.A.)) and Life Sentences (2021, Jonathan Cape and Godine (U.S.A.)).
His latest novel, The Paper Man, was recently published by Jonathan Cape and Godine in May 2023. Read more about it on the Books page.
Billy is the winner of a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award for the short story, and twice a recipient of the Arts Council of Ireland’s Bursary Award for Literature. Among numerous other honours, his story, The Boatman, was a finalist for the 2016 Costa Short Story Award, and more than a hundred of his stories have appeared or are forthcoming in literary journals and magazines around the world, including: Absinthe: New European Writing, Agni, the Bellevue Literary Review, the Chattahoochee Review, Confrontation, the Fiddlehead, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Kenyon Review, the Kyoto Journal, the London Magazine, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, Salamander, and the Saturday Evening Post.