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Recording Review

Pill Hill Quartet
By Jay O'Callahan
Reviewed by Alan Irvine

In Pill Hill Quartet, Jay O'Callahan tells of growing up in the Pill Hill neighborhood of Brookline, Massachusetts. The recording starts with a short introduction about the neighborhood, its name, and how the O'Callahan family came to move there. Four stories follow: "A Good Night's Rest," "Electra," "Muddy River High," and "Equations." "Electra" takes place when O'Callahan is young and newly arrived in the neighborhood, and examines his introduction to some of his more colorful neighbors, as well as his introduction to literature and Greek drama. "A Good Night's Rest" and "Equations" both chronicle rather wild and chaotic events at the neighbors' house; in the first, events set in motion, at least in part by O'Callahan's need to borrow a bicycle, the second, a strange, hastily arranged dinner party for an entire busload of guests. Muddy River High centers on life in high school, foot ball, chemistry, and a life lesson. (It also features a teacher who resembles Dolores Umbridge from the fifth Harry Potter book so closely that I would not be surprised if O'Callahan slips in a reference to her when performing this story live.)

All four stories are well told and delightful. O'Callahan strikes a good balance between staying on track and digressing into interesting side issues and vignettes. He keeps the narrative flow going. The listener never gets lost in a story, we always have a sense of what the story is about and where it may be heading. But, O'Callahan takes time to wander briefly off track, to fill in interesting details, to reminisce on amusing sidetracks, all of which adds to the sense of context, of Pill Hill as a real place filled with other stories, too.

The central characters in three of these stories are not O'Callahan and his family, as one might expect, but their neighbors the Lawrences. (In "Muddy River High" O'Callahan does take a more central role in the action of the story.) The Lawrences are the sort of family familiar to anyone who has read much children's literature: the eccentric family who are always up to something, full of energy and fun, their home a place where almost anything can happen. A family that, in this case, stays up past midnight singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs, then launches a late night hunt for an escaped boa constrictor, that drafts a door-to-door salesman into playing the chorus in a Greek tragedy, and entertains an entire busload of dinner guests at a moment's notice. Mrs. Lawrence in particular is a wonderfully over-the-top, bigger than life character. O'Callahan obviously delights in portraying her, in her attitude towards life and in her dramatic voice. She gets all the best lines and moments in the stories.

Having a character like Mrs. Lawrence to play with and against provides O'Callahan with an outlet for his more theatrical impulses. By letting her have the spotlight and sound outrageous, he can relax and narrate the stories in a relatively straightforward manner. His presentation here is much more conversational than in much of his work. In fact, O'Callahan, both as narrator and as character, primarily plays the straight-man here. He enjoys these neighbors; he learns from his experiences, but he is definitely the "normal" guy in the mix, which allows us to identify more with him and his experiences, to enjoy these delightful characters without being overwhelmed by them.

So this a delightful set of stories – funny, touching, entertaining. I think it is my favorite of all O'Callahan's work.

—posted September 2003


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