Some of my happiest fiction-reading hours have been spent in the company of Kevin Barry: two short-story collections, both prize-winners, and three captivating novels. First, the baroque mayhem of City of Bohane, characters exploding on the page flashing knives and fancy footwear, its vernacular veering from Clockwork Orange argot to Joycean dazzle. A world away from the beguiling charm of Beatlebone, which imagined a stressed-out John Lennon driving across Ireland to check out the uninhabited island he’d bought years earlier as a future bolthole.
Barry’s triumphant third novel, Night Boat to Tangier, long-listed for the Booker, opened with two old crims waiting at the ferry terminal of a Spanish port for the girl who links their lives, reminiscing endlessly as they wait. Violent and tender, it escaped the long shadow of Beckett to create its own unforgettable dark shape.
Now comes his third collection of short stories, That Old Country Music. Shafts of high comedy have always distinguished Barry’s work, the swerve from grief into blessed laughter, devastating throwaway lines summing up a life or a failure. His knockout way to turn a sentence remains, but there are fewer laughs here; urban larks and verbals replaced by an undercurrent of sadness: lacrimae rerum.
Barry’s favoured territory is small-town Irish. This collection, written over eight years, takes him deeper into his homeland, the wild places, the old country, to hear its hidden music. There’s less repartee; people talk to themselves, the characters no longer dominant — rather, figures in a landscape. There are losers, loners, and — unusually for Barry — women: a pregnant girl confronts her life as she waits on a rural back road while her lover botches a robbery; a Roma child escapes her detention fate to find an unlikely saviour in the Sligo countryside. Under a Spanish moon a vagrant dreams of the Irish homeland he wilfully abandoned. A story set in the wildness of the Ox mountains is an existential cat-and-mouse game to the death between an elderly policeman and a psychopath of lethal beauty.
A solitary romantic who longs for love tells himself he can handle ‘just about everything, shy of a happy outcome’. When he falls for a Polish waitress at the local café he reflects: ‘No doubt it was national stereotyping to think so, but she seemed to know her way around a head of cabbage.’
For one story Barry draws compassionately on real life: the American poet Theodore Roethke’s breakdown in Galway in 1960. In another, a writer inherits a cottage that has an unexpected sexual effect on women: ‘In Aldo’s cottage I was apparently ravishing. Elsewhere I was, as ever, a bag of spanners.’ The narrator registers the beauty of the Donegal landscape:
“This place could wreak fucking havoc on a man’s prose if you let it. Perhaps the austerity of south Sligo had been the saving of me — looking out at endless rain and reed fields, you are not inclined towards a curlicued or ornamental style.
The lovely irony is that Barry himself is known very much for his glittering style — curlicued even. So is he sending himself up here? Or acknowledging a change of direction?