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Kevin Barry

That Old Country Music

Category: Fiction | Published: 2020 | Review Added: 25-04-2021

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

Kevin Barry, the jacket blurb reads, "has been acclaimed as one of the world's most accomplished and gifted short story writers". It doesn't say by whom, but Barry would presumably agree. He has described himself in interviews as "a raving egomaniac" who "won't be happy until I'm up there, receiving the Nobel Prize". He looks out from his jacket photograph with the cold stare of a hungry predator, his hair tousled and his skin blotchy, conveying the studied essence of an Irish author.

He gives himself a lot to live up to: does he manage it? At his best, he comes close. Most of these stories describe characters on the lower rungs of society in western Ireland, trapped in tedious and sometimes dangerous circumstances, one of their few solaces contemplation of the sinisterly beautiful countryside. Barry studies them closely, and he has a good ear for dialogue, with which he's often at his most entertaining. Toronto and the State of Grace might, for all one knows, be the verbatim record of a conversation overheard between a barman, a drunk middle-aged man, and the latter's equally drunk elderly mother. It includes lines like, "He talked about that loaf of bread for sixty years".

Who's Dead McCarthy is the portrait of a man who haunts the streets of Limerick, collaring passers-by to communicate news of recent deaths - the more bizarre or grisly, the better ("Dead on the floor before they got to him").

Barry can also write lyrically. Saint Catherine of the Fields is about the narrator's discovery of an old song, describing the seduction of an innocent shepherd by a malicious hussy:

The aching music of love was to be heard now across the hill, and the hill was not used to it.
He never saw her again. If he had, he would have at once forgiven her - this was the sentence passed down for the sin of his adoration.

More good writing is found in That Old Country Music, in which a pregnant woman waits nervously in a Ford Transit van for her lover to return from robbing a petrol station:

Now the sunlight broke fully across the canopy of the pines and came starkly through the van. Hannah closed her eyes against it to see dreamy pink fields on the backs of her lids. She clawed at the greasy vinyl of the seat. She listened, and in the gaps between the wind it was just the birds in conference, in the high springtime excitedly, a vast and unpredictable family.

However, for every sentence of apposite poetry, there are three that are outrageously mannered and overwrought - some stories being worse for this than others:

He spent the best part of the next day roaming the wind-swayed fields of Google [...] (The Coast of Leitrim)
The last of the long Sunday shed light for a half-darkness; the sky had deepened in the haze; the corduroy lines of its vapour trails wavered on the fade. (Ox Mountain Death Song)
She reeled inside and vaulted on a high white screech of pain. (Roma Kid)

Barry, a self-confessed romantic, has the characterically Irish trait of trusting uncritically in his own lyrical gift. Equally Irish is his tendency to sabotage stories by ending them with either obvious punchlines or offputting coarseness ("Oh you poor sweet fucking fool"). Meanwhile, even in some of the most interesting pieces, the attempt to rustle up a narrative from a sketch is half-hearted. The narrator of the aforementioned Saint Catherine of the Fields contrives unconvincingly to find parallels between the tale of the lovelorn shepherd and his own situation. The ending of Toronto and the State of Grace is simultaneously melodramatic and farcical.

I've not read any other books by Barry at the time of reviewing this one, so if he has a masterpiece in him, I don't know whether it's behind him or in front of him. If the latter, he needs to learn to relax, let the writing flow of its own accord more, and resist the temptation to strike poses.

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