Cover of the book The Paper Man by Billy O'Callaghan with a field of yellow flower background

Off the Shelf: The Paper Man

By Billy O’Callaghan

Godine Publishing 5679785-6 228 pp. 2023   

Review by Terrence Kenneally

The Paper Man is the fourth book by Billie O’Callahan which this writer has read and the third reviewed in this column.

O’Callaghan hails from Cork and deserves to be better read in the U. S.  His writing is powerfully emotional and wholly captivating from page one.

The Paper Man slowly unveils a love story affected by pivotal world events. It weaves a compelling story in two-time frames brought together by one man’s search for identity that spans two countries and leaves an impact on multiple generations.

It is 1980s Cork, Ireland, and Jack Shive, the stories protagonist, discovers a hidden cache of love letters in an old shoe box while clearing out things in preparation for moving. The family home is being readied for sale.

The letters open a secret past of a long dead Austrian immigrant. His mother sought refuge with distant relatives in the Irish port city of Cork in the spring of 1938.

As a young mother she had fled Vienna on the cusp of World War II to be out of harms way. There in its tiny Jewish enclave, she gave birth to a son (Jack) and there she died of tuberculosis 10 years later, never having revealed the father’s identity.

Cover of book titled the Paper Man by Billie O’Callahan
The Paper Man by Billie O’Callahan

Now, 30 years have passed. Jack, who is a stevedore on the docks, is plunged into a crisis of confidence by these clues of an Austrian father he never knew of. The letters are written in German and addressed to his mother.

“The one-sided nature of these letters, especially considered in total, only raise questions and deepens the sense of mystery.”
Although he fears what the shoe box may reveal, something in him must know it’s contents. Through the help of his nearby father-in-law, who speaks fluent German, Jack solicits his aid in translating the letters.

It is the dawn of World War II in 1938. Vienna’s Anschluss has just happened and an Austrian and German soccer team face off.  It is the last day an Austrian flag will fly over the stadium in front of 60,000 exuberant fans who have come to see Mathias Sindelar, the Austrian team player who is larger than life and regarded 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, dribble becomes a small glory in and of itself, an exhibition in the purest sense.”

With all eyes on him, he is unable to resist opportunity to snub his opponents, which consequently draws the gaze of the Gestapo, who are in the audience. Sindelar has a reputation of being a ladies’ man, but his heart is captured by the young and innocent Rebekah and as their relationship evolves into something profound, so does tension over Germany’s occupation of Austria. Jack is stunned to learn that his father was a bona fide hero, who retired rather than play for the conquering Germans.

The story informs and intrigues the most discerning reader of historical fiction and is a TOP SHELF read.

Find this column and others from the September 2023 issue here!

Terry Kenneally

Terry Kenneally

*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Assoc. in Rocky River, Ohio. He represents insureds and insurance companies in insurance defense through the state of Ohio. Mr. Kenneally received his Masters from John Carroll University in Irish Studies and teaches Irish Literature and History at Holy Name High School.

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