Readers come to a new collection of short stories by Kevin Barry with the highest expectations. As Night Boat to Tangier showed, Barry is particularly impressive as a writer of men’s voices and stories, which means that he has the rare art of being able to convey in sentences what is not said, not even fully thought, by his characters.
Barry often writes the stories of people who don’t talk, or don’t say or know or consider what they mean when they do talk, and in this collection those are mostly men of a certain age whose lives have not taken obvious courses. The epigraph, from Jane Campion, warns us that “the romantic impulse is… a heroic path and it generally ends dangerously”.
Compared with the criminal world of Night Boat to Tangier, there’s little frank danger here, few threats of violence, but a sequence of people following the “heroic path” of impulse in rural and small-town Ireland where there are the risks, failures and ends we all inherit.
We begin, in The Coast of Leitrim, with Séamus Ferris, who finds himself at 35 with no job, no family, few friends, only “the damp old pebbledash cottage on Dromord Hill”, inherited unmortgaged and so bringing a troublesome freedom from the routines and interactions of work. Séamus falls in love with Katherine, a Polish waitress at the local cafe, and after some anxiety manages to ask her out as well as sending “mental messages… across the slow meander of the river. The content of these messages was even to himself uncertain but had to do with ardency and truth.”
The pair settle into “a companionable silence”. He drives her to the coast of Leitrim, all 4km of it, and “the ease they found outside and around the talk was soft magic”. But not, of course, for the reader, whose unease grows as the weeks pass, the “continental languor” of summer gives way to the usual autumn. We know what Séamus is thinking, and we can guess about Katherine. It’s not, exactly, that we need the happily-ever-after which appears to be receding, only that Barry’s writing of silence, of the ways we read silence, is uncomfortably excellent.
The 'heroic path' is taken by the stories, by the whole collection, as well as by the characters within
Deer Season brings us a girl, “almost 18 and determined to have a fuck before it”, more huntress than hunted as she passes “hedges opulent with berries” to arrange herself on the riverbank for an itinerant labourer “attractive enough for the job at hand”. It’s a brave story to publish, a young girl’s seduction of an older man, and it works because of the sense that the real agency belongs to the place, “the Forestry land rising up to the Ox Mountains” and to the turning seasons, a Lawrentian idea that the girl and the man act only as they must.
Realism to fable
There are stories of doomed youth, an ageing, sugar-addicted Sergeant Brown who “hadn’t enjoyed a mirror since the late eighties” hunting a young car-thief, fighter and betrayer of women over hill and dale: “He knew the ruts and tunnels of the country, the country of the Ox, a post-glaciated terrain, and knew where mountains had moved, the cracks and openings that were made.” (Kevin Barry knows when to hold back his prose and when to let rip.)
The Roma Kid abandons realism for fable more quickly than most, and though the sentences are perfectly composed there may be some disquiet about the politics; the central character is a mysterious little runaway who finds a new life in the woods. We’re on safer ground with the men in mid-life inheriting old cottages and the stories that come with them, going looking for old music, being found by old storytellers whose powers verge on the unnatural.
The “heroic path” is taken by the stories, by the whole collection, as well as by the characters within. Though they all begin more or less in literary realism, there is another tendency pulling towards capital-R Romanticism, towards the suggestion that we are all in the end creatures of landscape, buildings and weather, what we imagine to be our actions directed by dimly seen powers beyond our control.
It would be hard to explore this idea in a novel, where the convention of plot requires reader and writer to have faith in individual agency. But these playful, serious and beautifully crafted stories allow Barry to experiment as we need great writers to do.
Sarah Moss is assistant professor of creative writing at UCD. Her latest novel is Summerwater