Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island, Jonathan Cape.
I started this series of blogs on the six shortlisted collections for the 2012 Frank O’Connor Award by reminding myself that I must be alert to what governs my reaction to a new story I read: Do I like, or not like, a story for personal reasons, or do I like, or not like, a story for critical reasons?
I start this final blog in the series by admitting right up front that Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island is my favorite of the six shortlisted books, but I quickly admit that it is my favorite for personal reasons, not necessarily for critical reasons.
I enjoyed Barry’s Dark Lies the Island because:
*I have lived in Ireland and love the people.
*My wife, whom I love best of all people, is Irish.
*I love John Jameson, Bushmills, and Guinness.
*I love a good laugh.
*I am, God help me, a male, with Appalachian mountain blue-collar roots.
What I like best about Kevin Barry’s stories is the voice I hear when I read them.
“Voices! I hear voices! A story comes to me, most often, from a scrap of talk, from something overheard or just caught on the fly. It’ll be just a line or two, something that on the surface might seem meaningless, but it’ll buzz about in my head for a few days, like a trapped wasp, and if it doesn’t go away, I know that I have to write it away. This is usually how a story is triggered for me.” (Kevin Barry)
And voice (and by “voice” I do not mean what reviewers mean when they say a certain writer is the “voice” of his or her culture.) has always been an important part of storytelling in general and Irish storytelling in particular. Here is the first paragraph of Frank O’Connor’s classic study of the short story, The Lonely Voice:
“By the hokies, there was a man in this place one time by the name of Ned Sullivan, and a queer thing happened him late one night and he coming up the Valley road from Durlas.”
Kevin Barry’s stories have a more modern sound to them than this, and they are post-Chekhovian written stories--what O’ Connor called “a modern art form” and therefore represent “better than poetry or drama out own attitude to life”--but they still cling to Irish storytelling as a sort of public art form with a distinctive voice. Indeed, the best commentary I could write about Barry’s stories would be simply to quote a number of sentences that made me smile, shake my bemused head, or just laugh out loud…and have another drink.
Chris Power, one of England’s most knowledgeable and sensitive short story readers, wisely points out that “short-story writers are often talented phrasemakers, but only the best ensure each phrase is as hardworking as it is attractive.” He points out that one of the important characteristics of Barry’s style is that “phrases of sudden lyricism or savagery explode unexpectedly from banks of more conversational prose.” Power calls “Ford of Killary” “the highlight” of an excellent collection, urging that, as in any great story, “ every element works in unison,” blending Barry’s “muscular comic gift” with his attempt to “portray sincere emotional shifts.” Power also likes the prize-winning “Beer Trip to Llandudno,” (won the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award) which he compares to the stories of the “great and shamefully neglected V.S. Pritchett,” who uses the comic for compassionate ends. Amen to that.
Most reviewers call attention to the “male” appeal of Barry’s stories. Helen Davies in The Sunday Times calls “Beer Trip to Llandudno” a “great, lusty, bear hug of a story celebrating that rarest of relationships in literature: male friendship.” John Burns, also in The Sunday Times, says “There’s a blokey feel to many of the stories, and you sense male readers will get a bigger kick out of the drinking, dryhumping, and general coarseness.” Burns calls Barry the “most exciting Irish short story writer of his generation” and compares him to Trevor and McGahern. (Easy now!) Holly Williams in The Independent also calls attention to the “blokishness” of many of the stories, balanced by a “masculine romantic idealism.”
Keith Ridgeway in The Irish Times puts his finger squarely on the genius of Kevin Barry: “Kevin Barry is fearless. Reckless…. The language is a welcoming roll of robust, swaggering banter, punctuated by bright points of quietness and subtle precision…. He is a rogue. He’s shameless.”
Yes, I agree. When I read Barry, I realize why I could never be a great short story writer. I just don’t have the nerve for it. Take, for example, the opening story, “Across the Rooftops,” a romantic wisp of a thing that serves as an unlikely introit for the revelry to follow (Barry may be a rogue, but he is not a lout), and take this sentence: “My heart opened and took in every black poison the morning could offer.” I would never try to get away with a sentence like that, but that old roguish romantic Kevin Barry pulls it off (no double entendre intended).
It is with the second story, “Wifey Redux” that we get Barry, still the romantic, having a good time with the voice of his male narrator, a “moderately poetical” guy who has, what he calls in the first sentence (pace Tolstoy), a happy marriage, to a wispily slight woman who cannot pronounce the letter “R”—a rabbit was a wabbit—“which made her even more cute and bonkable.” The narrator gets panic-stricken when his seventeen-year old girl starts dating a guy with a mid-Atlantic twang that doesn’t even sound Irish any more. When he asks his wife what the two are doing under a duvet in July, she, not so concerned, says, “I think we can pwesume that she’s jackin’ him off.” When the guy dumps the daughter, the tide turns and our valiant hero finds a hilarious way to make it right and express his frustration.
“Ford of Killary,” one of my favorite stories in the collection, is about an English poet who buys a hotel and pub in Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland between counties Galway and Mayo. Of course, it is an economic disaster, but the poet calls himself the “last of the hopeless romantics.” The clientele include such colorful characters as Mick Harry, the distributor of bull semen for the vicinity and his enormously fat wife Vivien, who, if not controlled, are apt to go at it up against the pub bar. “The people of this part of north Galway are oversexed,” says the narrator. “I had found a level of ribaldry that bordered on the paganistic. It goes back of course. They lick it up off the crooked rocks.” The context for the story is a terrific storm that floods the fjord of Killary, with water running into the ground floor of the hotel, forcing the hilarity and drinking upstairs to a room with disco lights. And so they dance the night away on the fjord of Killary.
The other great blokey story in the collection is, of course, “Beer Trip to Llanndudno,” in which a group of guys in the Real Ale Club (who meet five or six nights a week in quest of the perfect ale) make their July outing to a seaside resort in Wales. “There are those,” the narrator says, who’d call us a bunch of sots but we don’t see ourselves like that. We see ourselves as hobbyists.” These boys just want to have fun, and they have a harmless quality to their perceptions, e.g.: “A lively blonde familiar with her forties but nicely preserved, bounced through from reception. Our eyes went shyly down. She took a glass to shine as she waited our call. Type of lass who needs her hands occupied.” When they have a conversation on “what’s the best you ever had,” it is about ale. Loveable man-children all.
Not all the stories are as irresistible as these three. But these are so funny and good natured and so well told that if you take away only them from Dark Lies the Island you will be well served and apt to laugh so hard the tears will run down your leg. God knows, a good laugh in this economy is a rare thing indeed and something for which we can be grateful.
So what do I think is the best book of short stories among the six shortlisted? Give me the Fourth of July to think about it; I need a hot dog and a couple of beers. The good judges at Cork will announce their choice for a winner of the big bucks on July 5. Wish I could be there to make those beers Guinness.