Town and Country: New Irish Short Stories, edited by Kevin Barry
Town and Country: New Irish Short Stories
Edited by Kevin Barry
Faber and Faber
The Irish short story “has come alive again and is wriggling and it has about it all the demonic energy (and the undeniable immediacy) of a newborn infant”. It is “pulsing with great, mad and rude new energies”. So writes Kevin Barry in his introduction to Faber’s fourth anthology of Irish stories, and his claim is fully backed up by the 20 tales in his sharp, lively and varied selection. Following on the heels of previous anthologists David Marcus and Joseph O’Connor, Barry, as an innovative fiction writer himself (and winner of the world’s most lucrative story prize last year), is a sound choice to oversee the change of direction represented here.
The collection’s traditional-sounding title, Town and Country, is misleading, and although Barry claims that some of the stories “come in the shapes that we know and have loved in the form”, it soon becomes clear that he is quietly pursuing an agenda. What is striking about the book as a whole are its absences: the Catholic Church, for example, is almost invisible throughout; the Troubles go unmentioned; there are no land disputes or rural family feuds. Aesthetically, too, the writers chosen are not those who work in the intensely crafted tradition of McGahern and Trevor; in theme and style, they have moved elsewhere. Also missing are most of the resonating voices of contemporary Irish literature we’re used to seeing anthologised: Tóibín, Kilroy, Bolger, Sebastian Barry and Colum McCann, as well as the Booker-winning trio of Doyle, Banville and Enright.
What remains, though, is emigration, the emigrant viewpoint and the strand of surrealism that goes with it. Although the playful self-reinventors in these stories are not downtrodden exiles, they are often dazed by displacement. In Godigums, for example, Keith Ridgway’s protagonist returns to Dublin after five years “with his tail between his legs”, and this metaphorical tail develops a moral life of its own as its owner lies, evades and makes up stories about the years away, which – we never learn why – he can’t bear to talk about truthfully. In Julian Gough’s Earworm, the nerdy, techie antihero, from his bedroom near Berlin, avenges past grief and humiliation by developing the perfect addictive pop song that makes people the world over grind to a stupefied halt.
The small towns represented here in stories by the likes of Molly McCloskey, Paul Murray and Dermot Healy are often refuges or playgrounds for restless spirits from elsewhere, while Dublin, as in Desmond Hogan’s Brimstone Butterfly, can be a place so threatening that even fugitive Croatian veterans from the war in Bosnia can’t handle it.
The range of themes, characters, locations and moods covered in these pages is impressive; there is an inventive uncertainty in its mix of established voices and highly promising new ones, such as those of Mary Costello, Andrew Meehan, Colin Barrett and Lisa McInerney. And Barry’s creative editing has ensured that, as promised, we can discern here the shape of Irish fiction to come.
Giles Newington is Assistant Literary Editor