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Good Trouble

Stories

Author Joseph O'Neill On Tour
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From the PEN/Faulkner Award–winning author of Netherland comes a collection of stunning, subversive, wryly comic stories that reveal the emotional depths and surprising beauty of life in the twenty-first century. A poet confronts the state of his art when asked to sign a petition-in-verse to free Edward Snowden. A man attending a wedding in Tuscany seeks a moment of solace with a friendly goose. A father uses a tracking app to follow his son’s stolen phone, opening wider questions of the world and its dangers. In these flashes of trouble, O’Neill unearths the real, secretly political consequences of our ordinary lives. No writer is more incisive about the world we live in now.
 
“A thoroughly enjoyable collection in which O’Neill treats his characters with a wry sympathy and a sense of fun. . . . There’s often a subversive, comic element in O’Neill’s writing. . . . He probes the frictions that make marriages and families fissure or fight for survival, the situations where discomfort breeds anxiety and resentment mushrooms into malaise.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“O’Neill’s writing is always inventive. . . . The reader is delightfully tossed about. . . . The collection will please fans of quirky short fiction.” —Publishers Weekly 
 
“Funny and fierce. . . . An essential book, full of unexpected bursts of meaning and beauty.” —Ploughshares

“Wonderful. . . . Comforting. . . . What remains uniformly dazzling throughout is O’Neill’s remarkable dialogue.” —AM New York  

“Elegant, often challenging, and always entertaining.” —The Washington Times

“O’Neill writes with an urgent timeliness. . . . The thrill of seeing the here and now transmuted into morally serious and comically rich prose is heightened once you realize its rarity.” —Guernica

“Beautifully crafted. . . . Wonderful. . . . Gloriously Kafkaesque. . . . O’Neill’s tales often echo [David Foster] Wallace’s mixture of humor and profundity, demonstrating a similar, almost preternatural eye for the absurdities of contemporary life.” —Booklist 

“[A] fine collection. . . . Compelling.” —Houston Chronicle

“[O’Neill’s] subversive humor finds new angles. . . . The angst of modern life pervades the daily lives of the characters.” —Time

“Poignant. . . . Fascinating. . . . The characters are subtly crafted, nuanced in their observations of others, and understated. . . . [O’Neill] quietly leads us toward a reflection of ourselves that, perhaps, makes us just a bit more appreciative of all the ‘good trouble’ we have.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Sly and winningly offbeat. . . . Conventional masculinity needs shrewd anatomists like Joseph O’Neill more than ever before.” —The Observer (London)

“Elegant. . . . Remarkable. . . . Shot through with a subtle psychology and human attention. . . . In Good Trouble, what is left unsaid and unanalysed returns, is unburied, and both its comic and quietly tragic potential is set loose.” —The Irish Times

“Mordantly funny. . . . Powerfully felt. . . . Examin[es] what makes us tick with humour, verve and sharp insight.” —The Herald (Scotland)

“Powerful. . . . Compelling. . . . O’Neill’s stories impeccably capture the minutiae of modern life and the interior struggles that are both molehills and mountains.” —Lincoln Journal-Star

“Absorbing. . . . In his typically sharp, smart language, [O’Neill] shows us characters undone by contemporary life, not grandly but in the small, essential ways that define our culture.” —Library Journal 
The Sinking of the Houston
 
 
When I became a parent of young children I also became a purposeful and relentless opportunist of sleep. In fact sleep functioned as that period’s subtle denominator. I found myself capable of taking a nap just about any­where, even when standing in a subway car or riding an escalator. I wasn’t the only one. Out and about, I spot­ted drowsy or dozing people everywhere; and I realized that a kind of mechanized mass somnambulism is an essential component of modern life; and I gained a better understanding of the siesta and the snooze and the death wish.
 
Then my three boys grew big—grew from toddling alarmists into wayward urban doofuses neurologically unequipped to perceive the risks incidental to their teen­age lives. Several nights a week I lie awake in bed until the front door has sighed shut behind every last one of them. Even then, even once they’re all safely home, there are disquieting goings-on. Objects are put in motion, to frightening sonic effect. A creaking cupboard hinge is an SOS. A spoon in a cereal bowl is a tocsin.
 
The key point is that I no longer have the ability to nap at will—to recover, in nickels of unconsciousness, a lost hypnotic legacy. A round-the-clock jitteriness prevails.
 
As a consequence, the concept of peace and quiet has assumed an italicized personal importance. Who can say, of course, what “peace and quiet” means? It certainly doesn’t denote the experience produced by being by one­self. I can offer only a subjective definition: the state of affairs in which (1) one finds oneself at home; (2) there are people around whom one wants to have around, not least because it means that one doesn’t have to worry about where else they might be; (3) one sits in one’s arm­chair; and (4) the people around leave one alone.
 
The phenomenon of the Dad Chair needs no inves­tigation here. I’ll just state that there came a moment when the whole business of taking care of the guys—of their need to be woken up, clothed, fed, transported, coached, cleaned, bedded down, constantly kept safe and constantly captained—altered me. The alteration made me identify with the shipman, working in high and howling winds in the Bay of Biscay, who dreams of the bathtubs of La Rochelle. This led me to buy a black leatherette armchair and to designate it as my haven. I’ve got to say, it has worked out pretty well.
 
But of late, the fifteen-year-old, the middle son, has taken to disturbing me. I’ll be sitting there, doing stuff on my laptop, when he’ll approach and pull off my noise-canceling headphones.
 
“What is it?” I ask him.
 
“Have you heard of the Duvaliers?”
 
“What?”
 
“The Duvaliers. The dictators of Haiti.”
 
“What about them?”
 
“There’s two Duvaliers,” he says. “There’s the father and there’s the son. Do you know that they used rape to punish their political opponents?”
 
“What?”
 
He says, “They—”
 
“I don’t want to hear about it. I know all about the Duvaliers. They were horrible. I know all about it.”
 
“But, Dad, I’ll bet you don’t know. There was one time—”
 
“Stop harassing me!” I shout. “Stop bothering me with this stuff! Leave me alone! I lived through it! I don’t want to discuss it!”
 
He answers, in his mild way, “You didn’t exactly live through it. You just heard about it.”
 
I understand that my son is trying to get a precise sense of the world he is about to enter—the wide world. I understand that this can be a difficult process. I under­stand that it’s a good thing that he comes to me with these questions, which do him nothing but credit, and that these are golden moments that must be savored. I understand all that.
 
Note that my fifteen-year-old is a distinct case but not a special one. His two brothers are the same. Each, in his own way, threatens the peace and the quiet.
 
“Where is East Timor?” this particular son asks.
 
“Look it up,” I say.
 
His voice has arrived from his bedroom, where he’s lying in his bunk bed, in a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms and skateboarding socks, reading his phone. Sometimes he’ll come out of the bedroom and sit on the arm of my armchair and cast an eye over my screen while he talks. Which is exasperating. What I do online is my business.
 
He calls out, “Do you know who Charles Taylor is?”
 
I’m not answering that.
 
He comes out of the brothers’ room, which is what we call the space in which the three boys are cooped up. “He was a guerilla leader. In Liberia. He had an army made up of children.”
 
“Stop right there,” I say.
 
My son stops where he is, because he thinks I’m tell­ing him that he should stop advancing toward me. From a distance of about three yards he says, “He made the children do some really bad things. Really, really bad things. He made them shoot their own parents. I think Taylor may have been the worst of them all.”
 
I remove my reading glasses and look him in the eye. “C’est la vie,” I tell him.
© Michael Lionstar
Joseph O’Neill is the author of the novels The Dog, Netherland (which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award), The Breezes, and This Is the Life. He has also written a family history, Blood-Dark Track. He lives in New York City and teaches at Bard College. View titles by Joseph O'Neill

About

From the PEN/Faulkner Award–winning author of Netherland comes a collection of stunning, subversive, wryly comic stories that reveal the emotional depths and surprising beauty of life in the twenty-first century. A poet confronts the state of his art when asked to sign a petition-in-verse to free Edward Snowden. A man attending a wedding in Tuscany seeks a moment of solace with a friendly goose. A father uses a tracking app to follow his son’s stolen phone, opening wider questions of the world and its dangers. In these flashes of trouble, O’Neill unearths the real, secretly political consequences of our ordinary lives. No writer is more incisive about the world we live in now.
 
“A thoroughly enjoyable collection in which O’Neill treats his characters with a wry sympathy and a sense of fun. . . . There’s often a subversive, comic element in O’Neill’s writing. . . . He probes the frictions that make marriages and families fissure or fight for survival, the situations where discomfort breeds anxiety and resentment mushrooms into malaise.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“O’Neill’s writing is always inventive. . . . The reader is delightfully tossed about. . . . The collection will please fans of quirky short fiction.” —Publishers Weekly 
 
“Funny and fierce. . . . An essential book, full of unexpected bursts of meaning and beauty.” —Ploughshares

“Wonderful. . . . Comforting. . . . What remains uniformly dazzling throughout is O’Neill’s remarkable dialogue.” —AM New York  

“Elegant, often challenging, and always entertaining.” —The Washington Times

“O’Neill writes with an urgent timeliness. . . . The thrill of seeing the here and now transmuted into morally serious and comically rich prose is heightened once you realize its rarity.” —Guernica

“Beautifully crafted. . . . Wonderful. . . . Gloriously Kafkaesque. . . . O’Neill’s tales often echo [David Foster] Wallace’s mixture of humor and profundity, demonstrating a similar, almost preternatural eye for the absurdities of contemporary life.” —Booklist 

“[A] fine collection. . . . Compelling.” —Houston Chronicle

“[O’Neill’s] subversive humor finds new angles. . . . The angst of modern life pervades the daily lives of the characters.” —Time

“Poignant. . . . Fascinating. . . . The characters are subtly crafted, nuanced in their observations of others, and understated. . . . [O’Neill] quietly leads us toward a reflection of ourselves that, perhaps, makes us just a bit more appreciative of all the ‘good trouble’ we have.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Sly and winningly offbeat. . . . Conventional masculinity needs shrewd anatomists like Joseph O’Neill more than ever before.” —The Observer (London)

“Elegant. . . . Remarkable. . . . Shot through with a subtle psychology and human attention. . . . In Good Trouble, what is left unsaid and unanalysed returns, is unburied, and both its comic and quietly tragic potential is set loose.” —The Irish Times

“Mordantly funny. . . . Powerfully felt. . . . Examin[es] what makes us tick with humour, verve and sharp insight.” —The Herald (Scotland)

“Powerful. . . . Compelling. . . . O’Neill’s stories impeccably capture the minutiae of modern life and the interior struggles that are both molehills and mountains.” —Lincoln Journal-Star

“Absorbing. . . . In his typically sharp, smart language, [O’Neill] shows us characters undone by contemporary life, not grandly but in the small, essential ways that define our culture.” —Library Journal 

Excerpt

The Sinking of the Houston
 
 
When I became a parent of young children I also became a purposeful and relentless opportunist of sleep. In fact sleep functioned as that period’s subtle denominator. I found myself capable of taking a nap just about any­where, even when standing in a subway car or riding an escalator. I wasn’t the only one. Out and about, I spot­ted drowsy or dozing people everywhere; and I realized that a kind of mechanized mass somnambulism is an essential component of modern life; and I gained a better understanding of the siesta and the snooze and the death wish.
 
Then my three boys grew big—grew from toddling alarmists into wayward urban doofuses neurologically unequipped to perceive the risks incidental to their teen­age lives. Several nights a week I lie awake in bed until the front door has sighed shut behind every last one of them. Even then, even once they’re all safely home, there are disquieting goings-on. Objects are put in motion, to frightening sonic effect. A creaking cupboard hinge is an SOS. A spoon in a cereal bowl is a tocsin.
 
The key point is that I no longer have the ability to nap at will—to recover, in nickels of unconsciousness, a lost hypnotic legacy. A round-the-clock jitteriness prevails.
 
As a consequence, the concept of peace and quiet has assumed an italicized personal importance. Who can say, of course, what “peace and quiet” means? It certainly doesn’t denote the experience produced by being by one­self. I can offer only a subjective definition: the state of affairs in which (1) one finds oneself at home; (2) there are people around whom one wants to have around, not least because it means that one doesn’t have to worry about where else they might be; (3) one sits in one’s arm­chair; and (4) the people around leave one alone.
 
The phenomenon of the Dad Chair needs no inves­tigation here. I’ll just state that there came a moment when the whole business of taking care of the guys—of their need to be woken up, clothed, fed, transported, coached, cleaned, bedded down, constantly kept safe and constantly captained—altered me. The alteration made me identify with the shipman, working in high and howling winds in the Bay of Biscay, who dreams of the bathtubs of La Rochelle. This led me to buy a black leatherette armchair and to designate it as my haven. I’ve got to say, it has worked out pretty well.
 
But of late, the fifteen-year-old, the middle son, has taken to disturbing me. I’ll be sitting there, doing stuff on my laptop, when he’ll approach and pull off my noise-canceling headphones.
 
“What is it?” I ask him.
 
“Have you heard of the Duvaliers?”
 
“What?”
 
“The Duvaliers. The dictators of Haiti.”
 
“What about them?”
 
“There’s two Duvaliers,” he says. “There’s the father and there’s the son. Do you know that they used rape to punish their political opponents?”
 
“What?”
 
He says, “They—”
 
“I don’t want to hear about it. I know all about the Duvaliers. They were horrible. I know all about it.”
 
“But, Dad, I’ll bet you don’t know. There was one time—”
 
“Stop harassing me!” I shout. “Stop bothering me with this stuff! Leave me alone! I lived through it! I don’t want to discuss it!”
 
He answers, in his mild way, “You didn’t exactly live through it. You just heard about it.”
 
I understand that my son is trying to get a precise sense of the world he is about to enter—the wide world. I understand that this can be a difficult process. I under­stand that it’s a good thing that he comes to me with these questions, which do him nothing but credit, and that these are golden moments that must be savored. I understand all that.
 
Note that my fifteen-year-old is a distinct case but not a special one. His two brothers are the same. Each, in his own way, threatens the peace and the quiet.
 
“Where is East Timor?” this particular son asks.
 
“Look it up,” I say.
 
His voice has arrived from his bedroom, where he’s lying in his bunk bed, in a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms and skateboarding socks, reading his phone. Sometimes he’ll come out of the bedroom and sit on the arm of my armchair and cast an eye over my screen while he talks. Which is exasperating. What I do online is my business.
 
He calls out, “Do you know who Charles Taylor is?”
 
I’m not answering that.
 
He comes out of the brothers’ room, which is what we call the space in which the three boys are cooped up. “He was a guerilla leader. In Liberia. He had an army made up of children.”
 
“Stop right there,” I say.
 
My son stops where he is, because he thinks I’m tell­ing him that he should stop advancing toward me. From a distance of about three yards he says, “He made the children do some really bad things. Really, really bad things. He made them shoot their own parents. I think Taylor may have been the worst of them all.”
 
I remove my reading glasses and look him in the eye. “C’est la vie,” I tell him.

Author

© Michael Lionstar
Joseph O’Neill is the author of the novels The Dog, Netherland (which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award), The Breezes, and This Is the Life. He has also written a family history, Blood-Dark Track. He lives in New York City and teaches at Bard College. View titles by Joseph O'Neill

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