One summer evening, almost two years ago now, my father-in-law and I were stuck in holiday traffic on the Prospect Expressway. The Prospect is a blocked artery in the heart of central Brooklyn, linking Ocean Parkway, which runs all the way out to the beach at Coney Island, with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, which burrows beneath the Dimond Reef, where the Hudson and East Rivers meet, and rises in Battery Park City on the Westside of downtown Manhattan. For a mile or so between Fort Hamilton and Windsor Terrace, the Prospect travels in a roofless, bricked-in channel sunk a storey below street-level, its walls bearing the shadowy marks of torn-away creeping vines, the pylons of its overpasses bleeding rust from the exposed ends of iron reinforcing rods. Overhead are the pointed eaves of ash-grey clapboard houses and the blunt clay-brown facades of brick apartment buildings – above which, on this day, were two tiny red balloons.
I don’t remember where my father-in-law and I had been or where we were heading or what we talked about, but I remember the balloons. They seemed incongruous up there, improbable and hyper-real, vivid against an off-white summer sky stretched flat and empty. They were scanning right to left from Prospect Park, where preparations for the Fourth of July weekend were under way, towards Green-Wood Cemetery, whose residents include Jean Michel Basquiat and Wolfe Tone’s widow, Matilda. I watched them sliding past and wondered from how far away they could be seen, if they were being watched by people sitting further along the Prospect or walking in the streets above us. I wondered where they had risen and where they would come down. Would they make it to the City? Or fall into the river? Or settle among the gravestones somewhere in the cemetery’s acres? – where, my father-in-law once had told me, a blue-green flock of Argentinian monk parakeets had made their homes and multiplied since the 1960s, once they’d broken out of the crate at JFK in which they had been quarantined.
I thought of a moment in “Work,” a story from Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, where Fuckhead, the book’s narrator, is helping his friend Wayne strip copper wire from the walls of the house Wayne once shared with his now ex-wife. The men, both heroin addicts, hope to sell the wire for drug money. They work all morning before taking a breather in front of a window, where they notice a boat coming down a nearby river, above it and tied to it “a tremendous kite on a rope.” From the kite, Fuckhead observes, “up in the air a hundred feet or so, a woman was suspended, belted in somehow, I guessed. She had long red hair. She was delicate and white, naked except for her beautiful hair. I don’t know what she was thinking as she floated past these ruins.” For the two men, standing destroyed in a derelict building, the woman is a sign of what neither of them is able to achieve, a taunting promise of something that exists always just beyond reach. But for the reader, she is a gift, a weird and sudden revelation of the numinous meaning for which Fuckhead grasps again and again throughout the book.
The balloons certainly seemed weird and sudden, although in life – my life – they more or less were meaningless. But in a story, I remember thinking, they couldn’t help but be freighted with revelatory value. Which, for me, is what good short stories do: they observe keenly, select judiciously, arrange character and circumstance to make the numinous happen. I was writing a story at the time, the last and the longest of what would become Over Our Heads, my first book, a collection of fifteen that was published last month by Penguin Ireland. The story, which I’d go on to call “Are You Still There?” was among the more ambitious. At its heart, it was about a couple breaking up and getting back together and breaking up again, but it should also, I thought, be about bigger things like distance and disconnection and growing up or failing to – too many things, really, which vied with and confused each other in the draft then underway. The story needed, I felt, a strong central image to cathect and transform its parts, some symbol both arrestingly literal and suggestive. The balloons seemed to make sense.
When I got home to my apartment, I put them in – twice – as moments of symbolic punctuation that played off one another, the first time at a point when my narrator realizes his relationship is over, the second time at a point when the reader realizes it might not be. I finished the story by Christmas and submitted the final manuscript. My editor strengthened it and the copyeditor tightened it. A designer was hired to make the cover. I waited for the prototypes, wondering which of the lines I’d written might make it into images, expecting photographs of planes or airports, of the Irish Sea or the New York skyline. But what I got back was a plain, off-white ground with my name in red and the title in black, the two O-s of Over and Our stylized as blocks of flat color diffusing at the edges, lines of string sailing from them, scanning right to left. It’s a strong image, I think, and not like a lot of other covers out there. Of course, I can’t take credit for it: I’m grateful to the designer. Whenever I look at it, I wonder what people might think about when they see it on the shelves. I think about the Prospect, Matilda Tone, the parakeets.
(c) Andrew Fox
About Over Our Heads
A young man rushes to the bedside of his ex, knowing the baby she’s having is not his own. Travelling colleagues experience an eerie moment of truth when a fire starts in their hotel. A misdirected parcel sets off a complex psychodrama involving two men, a woman and a dog …
Andrew Fox’s clever, witty, intense and thoroughly entertaining stories capture the passions and befuddlements of the young and rootless, equally dislocated at home and abroad. Set in America and Ireland – and, at times, in jets over the Atlantic.
‘Over Our Heads is full of surprises, all of them great’ Roddy Doyle, winner of the Booker Prize
‘Deft, clever, intense – this is a terrific debut from a very gifted new writer’ Kevin Barry, winner of the IMPAC prize
Over Our Heads is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
About Andrew Fox
Andrew Fox was born in 1985 and raised in North County Dublin. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Dublin Review, the Stinging Fly, Prairie Schooner, the Massachusetts Review, New Irish Writing, New Hibernia Review, the Daily Beast, and the anthologies Sharp Sticks Driven Nails (Stinging Fly Press), Dubliners 100 (Tramp Press), and All Over Ireland (Faber and Faber). His awards include two
Arts Council bursaries for literature, the T. Augustine Martin Memorial Award, and an RTE PJ O’Connor Award for radio drama. He holds a BA and an MA in English from UCD, and an MPhil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. In 2010, he moved to the United States to begin a PhD at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He currently lives in New York City, where he is finishing his doctoral work while employed as a grant writer for a community services organization. Over Our Heads is his first book.