Ahead of next Tuesday's podcast with Young Skins author Colin Barrett, the climax of our coverage of the current reading choice of the Irish Times Book Club, we are republishing our original review by Katy Hayes, from October 2013.
"It isn't necessarily the job of fiction writers to explain our social landscape, but sometimes the best of them do," Hayes's review begins. "Colin Barrett's short, brutal collection of stories presents clearly and without sentimentality a picture of the young Irish small-town male, in his current crisis of hopelessness and alienation."
She makes a telling comparison with the similarly but differently stunted lives of a previous generation of small-town Irish males: “There is no lack of access to sex here, as there was with Patrick Kavanagh’s engagement with the state of the Irish male in the 1940s. There is a lack of access to meaningfulness. That is the ‘great hunger’ here; it is a philosophical starvation.”
The reviewer singles out Calm With Horses as the centrepiece of the collection, a 73-page novella: “in its high-octane violence and profound nihilism, it reads like a Martin McDonagh screenplay, although it is substantially more self-aware than that writer ... There are glimmers of conscience ... The darkness prevails, of course, though not without dramatising the profound value of those slender cracks of light.”
Hayes also recognises and highlights the author’s keen interest in language. “How’s this for poetry? ‘You know my cuntishness is as congenital as my cravenness.’ And this description of a couple of henchmen: ‘twin slabbed stacks of the densest meat, their breezeblock brows unworried by any worm of cerebration’.
“The intricate and sophisticated facility with language is often a counterpoint to brutish purpose, as shown here by the voice of the young skin narrator of Bait, the second story in the collection: ‘The irrelevantly elderly lined the bar, mostly fat men with dead wives, hefting pints into their bloated drink-cudgelled faces.’”
The reviewer also identifies the acuity of the characterisation: “Barrett knows his way around psychology. The alcoholic returning to his lovely booze in Diamonds snatches the glass from the alcoholic woman without waiting for her to offer it to him. ‘I spared her that,’ he says.”
A month later, David Robbins in his Irish Independent review observed: “ His setting and subject matter – the plight of the young rural male – invite comparison with Kevin Barry, whose collection There Are Little Kingdoms explored the same territory. Indeed, there are further similarities: both writers set a story in a rural pool hall where the local advance-and-retreat of courtship takes place. Barry’s story Atlantic City is a brilliant, almost fond, evocation of a long summer’s evening in a lonely town. But Barrett’s Bait is a darker, more menacing tale altogether. Although both stories deal with sexual longing, Barrett’s is more raw and affecting. There is a menace in the air in Barrett’s story. He doesn’t have Barry’s linguistic exuberance and energy, but he has a power all his own ... it’s the characterisation that makes it so memorable and affecting.
“Barrett’s use of language is powerful and surprising – he talks about the ‘vasculature’ of pipes on the underside of an upturned car, and a character worries that people are watching ‘the bulky hydraulics of his jaw’ as he eats his dinner.”
In December 2013, The Irish Times's literary correspondent Eileen Battersby chose Young Skins as the only Irish work in her books of the year seelction, declaring: "The most underpraised of the Irish newcomers, Young Skins is a fine collection dominated by the novella Calm With Horses, a bravura performance in which he simply outwrites many of his peers with a chilling confidence that suggests there is far more beneath the surface than merely the viciously effective black humour."
Chris Power, in his review for the Guardian last March, concluded: "his stories invite second readings that – the mark of really good work – seem to uncover sentences that weren't there the first time around. Chekhov once told his publisher that it isn't the business of a writer to answer questions, only to formulate them correctly. Throughout this extraordinary debut, but particularly in the excellent stories that bookend it, Colin Barrett is asking the right questions."
Young Skins has just been published in the United States to a rave review in the New York Times, which predicts that never mind the bestseller list, Young Skins is destined to end up on the curriculum.
“It lives up to its laurels,” wrote John Williams, who admires Barrett’s “exact and poetic” style and “striking maturity”, observing: “what separates his tough characters from those written by others is how carefully he applies the details that soften their edges”. There is one caveat, however: “The only question after reading the book is whether Mr Barrett’s groove is quite as wide as it is deep. When he strays from the usual types and dives – most notably in Diamonds, about two people who meet at an AA meeting – the results are less memorable.” Nevertheless, the verdict is overwhelmingly positive: “Mr Barrett does foundational things exceedingly well – structure, choices of (and switches in) perspective – without drawing attention to them. These are stories that are likely to be taught for their form ... His judgment is better than authoritative; it is imaginative and enlarging.”
For more reviews of Young Skins, visit the website of his publisher, Stinging Fly
There is an exceptionally fine interview with Colin Barrett in The Paris Review by fellow writer Jonathan Lee, which I would encourage everyone to read.
“The stories blend moments of horror with moments of hilarity, shocks of joy with shocks of despair, and no matter how grim a given scene by Barrett can get, it’s a thrill to be alive to hear him,” writes Lee in his introduction. “In a restroom, under a naked bulb, we find ‘a lidless shitter operated by a fitfully responsive flush handle’. In a field, ‘crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts’. A ‘big brown daddy-long-legs pedals airily in the sink basin,’ its movements ‘describing a flustered circle’, and a character named Bat cannot enjoy his dinner because a clan of kids is ‘eyeing the bulky hydraulics of his jaw’.
“The vitality of Barrett’s prose – the special intensity of attention he’s able to draw from details of small-town life – has already helped win him the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. To mark the US release of Young Skins this month, I talked with him about his allergy to ‘lethally competent writing’, the details of character and language upon which he builds a story, and how a work of fiction– like the community it describes – can develop ‘its shibboleths, its customs and codes, its own way of talking to itself’.
Barrett also contributed a fine piece to writing.ie in October 2013, with some great advice for writers, including this:
“With the caveat that I almost certainly know nothing about anything, except what everyone already knows, I will put down a few of the most salient lessons I learned while writing my first book:
“Writing is rewriting, and rewriting is the art of productive repetition. This means the art of editing of course, but also subject matter. Do not be afraid to repeat yourself, to turn again and again to familiar territory. Writers do not have to be especially adroit or original thinkers: what matters is stamina, the ability to keep thinking for however long it takes for something useful to arrive. And it is usually only in that trance of extended contemplation or scrutiny, when one’s investigative impulse has been brought right up to the verge of its own exhaustion, that the best and most useful insights are gleaned.”
Finally, the New Yorker ran a new Colin Barrett short story, The Ways, last December and accompanied it with a revealing interview by Cressida Leyshon.
“What took me by surprise about the collection as I was writing it, and this goes back almost to your first question, about perspectives and timespans, was how a potential constraint—in the case of “Young Skins,” setting it all in the one place—was actually liberating. It was inspiring, and permitted me to come up with more and more material. I was worried that it might be limiting—that by sticking to one town I’d run out of things to say. Thankfully, the opposite ended up being true.”