Book Reviews - Review 410
That Old Country Music
Category: Fiction | Published: 2020 | Review Added: 25-04-2021
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:
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:
However, for every sentence of apposite poetry, there are three that are outrageously mannered and overwrought - some stories being worse for this than others:
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.