It isn’t necessarily the job of fiction writers to explain our social landscape, but sometimes the best of them do. 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.
It is set in a fictional west of Ireland town called Glanbeigh, near the sea and on the River Mule, in a world where, when you fetch your motorbike, you check to be sure no one has urinated in the helmet. The young men in it, mostly under 30, enact scenes of stunted opportunity, and proceed through life in a state of low-level anxiety. There is no love, no tenderness. A bit of lust, perhaps, a bit of looking at “girls’ behinds”, always accompanied by a yearning inarticulacy. 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 centrepiece of the collection is a 73-page novella, Calm With Horses. 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. A young drug dealer, Dympna (a man), and his sidekick, Arm, find their associates uncontrollable, as the fallout from an attempted sexual molestation threatens to undermine their business dealings. Arm is the father of an autistic son, and in that relationship we get a glimpse of the possibilities that are swept away by his involvement in his violent underworld, swept away like the body of the pitiful molester he flings into the Mule. There are glimmers of conscience, which appear through the cracks the child provokes in the general darkness of Arm's mind. The darkness prevails, of course, though not without dramatising the profound value of those slender cracks of light.
Barrett shows a 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."
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. This story contains the only concentrated attempt at humour in the recurring motif of the cat (Martin McDonagh again). The humour here is very effective. The stories could do with a little more leavening.
A minor character appears in an early story: Nubbin Tansey, the town tough, who throws aggressive shapes around the pool hall. Tansey resurfaces in another story, Stand Your Skin, where, in a senseless act of random violence, he causes catastrophic injury to the protagonist. Later we hear Nubbin hanged himself. "He was one of them couldn't stand being in his own skin."
"Is this happening?" asks Fannigan, the pitiful man who attempted the sexual molestation in Calm With Horses, as he stands naked and shivering on the bank of the River Mule, knowing he is a goner. So is this happening? Is all this wasted dead-end male youthfulness really happening? I suppose the answer lies in the coroners' reports.
Katy hayes is a writer and arts journalist