I admire the small journals and small presses in England, Ireland, Canada, and America that treasure the short story and keep it alive publishing stories by both newcomers and established writers, even though the chances of those stories being widely read are slim. No doubt, Alice Munro's recent win of the Nobel Prize for Literature, based solely on short stories, is a source of encouragement to writers, editors, and publisher. But there is only one Alice Munro.
One of those small journals/presses that I have grown to respect ever since it published Kevin Barry's There Are Little Kingdoms in 2007 is The Stinging Fly Press, which is run, I suspect, on a relatively meager budget with Arts Council support in Dublin by Declan Meade. Declan, recently asked if I would be interested in reading two recent collections of stories published by The Stinging Fly—Mary Costello's The China Factory, which got on the longlist for the Guardian First Book Award and earned much praise from Irish writer Anne Enright in The Guardian; and Young Skins, by Colin Barrett, which recently got very good notices in The Sunday Times and The Irish Times.
Yes, of course, I would. I cannot resist the Irish voice—which I hear every day from my lovely Irish wife and that I heard over many a Guinness in the year we spent in Dublin on a Fulbright Senior Fellowship several years ago. The Irish cannot, it seems, resist telling a story. And I cannot resist listening to them.
Mary Costello and Colin Barrett represent two quite different Irish social contexts and two quite different Irish voices. Costello's view of human reality is what reviewers like to call "sensitive," while Barrett creates a world that reviewers like to call "hardscrabble." Costello's characters--mostly women—are educated, with decent jobs, who get married, have kids, become lonely and have affairs. Barrett's characters--mostly men—are uneducated, drink, shoot pool, screw around, and do drugs.
These are readable, well-written, engaging stories, albeit sometimes a bit predictable. While certainly more than a notch above popular simplistic plot-based stories, they are somewhat below the delicately woven stories of the top-of-the-line short story writers, such as William Trevor and Alice Munro. But then, for both Costello and Barrett, these are their first collections. I expect more to come.
The title story of Mary Costello's collection focuses on a seventeen-year old girl who spends a summer before going to college in a factory that makes fine bone china—you know, dishes, cups, saucers, etc. She is brighter and more ambitious than many of the other women in the factory, but given the Irish distrust of folks that put on airs," (This is a common Alice Munro theme), she must keep secret her fantasies of long future days "among library stacks and the sound of page turning and my pen racing furiously across white paper."
The only person she knows at work is a man named Gus, with whom she catches a ride each day. He is a lump of a guy that the other women in the place call a "freak," saying he is like "something out of a zoo." While the narrator thinks of lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins poetry, "Dapple-dawn-drawn," he reads Hopalong Cassidy and Riders of the Purple Sage.
There is no doubt that the narrator is going to be an English major and will probably try her hand at writing fiction or poetry someday. She even talks like an English major, saying things like "My heart took fright," which she would never be able to get away with saying out loud in the factory. To her English major mind, Gus, who works in the kilns is often "purple-faced and sweating," as if he'd drawn the clay up from the bowels of the earth."
This is a story held together by thematic tension between the fine bone china and the dirty red clay from which it is made; between the sensitive, bookish young woman whose hands grow hot and pink and swollen from sponging off the china, and the hulking Gus whose sweat threatens to come seeping through his jacket to drown both of them as he drives her to work.
It's obvious nothing is going to happen between these two radically different characters, but it is necessary that something happens to redeem Gus from his mere physicality and make the narrator realize that airy poetic transcendence cannot exist apart from physical reality. To that end Costello invents a mad man—someone whose mind is so obsessed that he threatens physical life. He drives up to the factory and, spouting fundamentalist religious notions about the Day of Judgment being at hand, takes a shotgun from his car and fires into the air. Gus, of course, is the only one who remains calm and goes over to the man, speaking to him quietly, getting him to lay down his gun and walk away.
A few years later, the narrator in her beloved library and lecture halls, thinks of Gus touching the madman's shoulder, and thus "the rarity of any human touch." In her senior year of college, she gets a letter from her mother saying that Gus has died in a particularly grotesque way: (reminiscent of a Eudora Welty story) he went out on a cold winter day to get water from a barrel and had a heart attack, falling in; the water froze and that's the way they found him. The narrator, English major that she is, thinks of that day when Gus touched the man, wondering if when he reached out his hand, "was it to the man or to the madness he spoke?"
It's a well-done story, thematically significant and technically tight--worth reading more than once. And Mary Costello is a writer worth reading again. I recommend her to you. Yes, indeed, as reviewers have said, she is sensitive, but there is more to the promise of her stories than mere craft and sensitivity.
I must admit I have chosen to discuss "Kindly Forget My Existence," the final story in Colin Barrett's Young Skins, not only because the title is a line from James Joyce's "The Dead," but also because it is not about young men who drink, play pool, screw around, and do drugs. Rather, it is about two older guys who run into each other in a pub while waiting for a funeral to start and talk about their past with the woman who is being buried, a singer in their old band twenty years ago, with whom they both were lovers, and who was the ex-wife of one of them.
The Irish are great at talk, especially in pubs, but this is not just a "bit of craic." (Oh, by the way, if you do not remember the line from "The Dead," it is when Gabriel has finished carving the bird and people are beginning the meal, and he says "kindly forget my existence" as he sits down to eat before his "three graces" tributes to his hostesses.)
The two men in Barrett's story are Owen Doran and Eli Cassidy, former bandmates. The third man in the story is the barman, an Eastern European with a scarred Adam's apple, who spends most of the story down below doing inventory. The two men admit their cowardice at not going to the funeral, although Eli does sneak up to the cemetery where their old singer and lover, Maryanne, is being buried. Doran, who says "mortality's a skull-fuck," tells Eli that he has entered the "era of grand onanistic solitude."
Much of the story tells the background of Doran and Eli's up-and-down (mostly down) experiences with their band and their relationship with Maryanne, whose marriage to Eli was tainted by drugs and which only last fourteen months. After Eli tells Own about watching Maryanne's family going into the service while hiding behind bushes near the church, the bartender, the third character in the story—actually the character who makes this more than just about two guys talking in a pub while avoiding the funeral of an old lover—shows up from the depths of the pub, like a denizen from nether regions. His name is Dukic, and his has his own story to tell—about his experience in the war in Bosnia.
Dukic tells Doran that he reminds him of a man he once saw during the war who was trying to get to a woman and a child in the street, but cannot because of sniper bullets. Although the woman and child are already dead, the man runs out to them and is killed also. He says that he had forgotten the man in the street until Doran walks in and reminds him. When the three men go out to smoke, Eli tells the barman that he has a wife and kid also and wants to know if the barman was the sniper who did the shooting. But the barman only says, "It was a story."
When the funeral procession passes, Doran and Eli join it although they had not intended. When the barman goes back inside, he finds Eli's coat hanging on a stool. Although an hour or so later, some of the mourners come in for a drink, Doran and Eli are not with them. The next morning the coat is still there unclaimed, and although the barman thinks that someday the man will come back for it, "the man never did."
I like this story; it is cooler and quieter than the other stories in Barrett's collection, which are often violent and rough. "Kindly Forget My Existence," like many of James Joyce's stories, depends on talk, which Barrett does very well. The story conveys very delicately a sense of inevitable loss. It is not easy to communicate the subtle effect of death. I admire Barrett's ability to do so with such restraint and power.
I recommend Young Skins to you. And I urge you to support the good work Declan Meade does to promote the short story as a form at which the Irish have always excelled