Fearless, entertaining and determined to have his way with cliche
FICTION:Dark Lies the Island By Kevin Barry. Jonathan Cape, 185pp. £12.99
KEVIN BARRY is fearless. Reckless, you might think. In this collection of stories he is never anything less than entertaining, and he is frequently much more than that. But his writing is often a kind of mesmerising wrestling match – between his joyfully agile ability with language, and a terrifying tag team of character cliche and situational overfamiliarity. The language – a welcoming roll of robust, swaggering banter, punctuated by bright points of quietness and subtle precision – almost always wins out. And you begin to suspect that it’s a fix, a set-up, a pantomime bout rather than a real fight. But it’s riskier than that.
Sometimes – though rarely in this book – Barry seems to fumble, or to not quite know what to do with what he has. He is a writer who is constantly wrestling with his considerable talents, trying to get them to do even more, never settling, always trying to see if they can take him to new places. Such a writer is as rare these days as a great writer.
Not that there is anything unconventional in Barry’s idea of the short story. These are glimpses of lives, glimpses of character, turning usually on a crisis, even if a couple of them cover quite long periods of time. In one of these, Wifey Redux, a middle-aged man with the full host of middle-aged insecurities tells us the story of his marriage, and finds himself dismantled by his daughter’s sexuality. In another, Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer, an Irish boy-writer finds sexual education, a sort of love, and the certainty of abandonment, at the hands of a beautiful Slav photographer.
There is nothing startling in these outlines, is there? And most of these stories centre on an incident, a day, a short time frame, in which we get to see something of people as they find out something about themselves, or fail to. This is short-story world, and there are no surprises in the design. Nor, at least in outline, is there much surprise in the characters: men – for the most part – bewildered by desire; hard drinkers clutching absurdity out of despair; losers on the run or trying to stop running; gentle, incapable souls brought up short by cruelty or heartbreak. These are plots and characters that are easy to summarise, familiar, close to cliche.
And, as it turns out, that’s completely fine. If Barry takes his material from the standard stockpile of short-story props, the nervousness you feel at his choices is almost immediately dissipated by the things he does with them. He’s a rogue. He’s shameless. He dances a very sexy dance with cliche. And he seduces it, takes it home and f***s it senseless, and we get to see it with its legs in the air, and it doesn’t look much like cliche any more.
In one of the book’s almost perfect pieces, Beer Trip to Llandudno, one of a group of real-ale enthusiasts from Liverpool runs into an old flame, and subsequently runs into some trouble. It’s a beautiful portrait of friendship, that quiet, awkward, funny friendship amongst resolutely straight men whose love for each other is nevertheless plain, even – in the fog of drink – to themselves. And Barry is best with men. He has a wonderful grasp of masculine, macho fragility. He knows exactly how close it is to its apparent opposite, how full it is of need.
In A Cruelty, we get a lovely, gentle account of a man’s day out. And while it’s plain that this is a simple soul who enjoys routine, structure, the trains running on time, it’s only when he has a terrifying encounter with a random inexplicable bully that we realise how terrible his gentleness is, how heartbreaking, how ill fitted for this world.
In The Mainland Campaign, a teenage Irish boy is going to plant a bomb in Camden tube station, in London. It’s a wonderful, brief story, expertly laid out, in which we see backwards to what has made this boy, but also, beautifully, forwards, into what might make him again.
There are many men in this book who are saved or succoured or undone by women. The women themselves, though, are less sharply rendered. The book’s weakest piece is the title story itself, in which a well-off girl stays in her architect father’s house overlooking Clew Bay and contemplates cutting herself. It is too cautious, as if Barry is fascinated by this character but doesn’t quite know her.
In Ernestine and Kit, the very notion of caring women is wholly subverted, in a road trip that could have come from Flannery O’Connor in a particularly dark mood. It’s memorable, shockingly funny, but it’s too speculative to do much more than entertain.
There is lots of entertainment here. In Fjord of Killary, Barry rounds up a cross section of small-town-Ireland characters and puts them in a flooding hotel with a disgruntled poet as host. In Doctor Sot, a drunken doctor falls for a New Age traveller. In the opening story, Across the Rooftops – a slight and lovely thing – a boy sits beside a girl and wants to kiss her, and makes a mess of it. It sets the tone for this book, which is full of people who know what they want but are inept in their wanting, or unlucky, or deluded.
Kevin Barry is a wonderful writer. He may work with traditional materials, but he builds with them structures that seem new, and which tower above the flatness of contemporary Irish writing like monuments.
Keith Ridgway is the author of the novels Animals, The Parts and The Long Falling. His new book, Hawthorn Child, will be published by Granta Books in July