Five years ago, I read a short story by Kevin Barry in A Kind of Compass, an anthology edited by Belinda McKeon, author of the wonderful Tender. I was so impressed by his writing that I’m amazed that I haven’t got around to reading more of it particularly as, thanks to Kim’s enthusiastic review over at Reading Matters, I have a copy of Beatlebone waiting to be read. So many books etc. etc. As a result of all that procrastination when That Old Country Music turned up it jumped the TBR queue.
My usual approach to reviewing short stories is to pick several favourites to give a flavour of the collection but that’s a tough choice with this one which comprises eleven pieces, most set in the west of Ireland. It opens with The Coast of Leitrim which sees a lonely man conceive a passion for the young Polish woman working in his local coffee shop. Miraculously, she feels the same but he’s perfectly capable of sabotaging his own happiness. In Ox Mountain Death Song a police officer doggedly stalks a man who is reckless in the knowledge of his own mortality and careless of the trail of damage left in his wake while Old Stock sees the only surviving relative of a philanderer find his uncle’s deathbed promise of the seductive qualities of the cottage he’s to inherit hold true, but the novelty wears off. In Who’s-Dead McCarthy a walking catalogue of deaths meets his own end which is in danger of being unacknowledged. Just one that didn’t work for me – Roethke in the Bughouse based on the poet’s breakdown while staying on the island of Inishbofin in 1960 – but capturing a scattered mind on paper is extraordinarily difficult.
Barry explores themes of love, desire, and death through a diverse set of characters who are often firmly rooted in their communities giving his collection a strong sense of place. His language is precise, sometimes earthy, sometimes lyrical, but always carefully chosen. Many of his stories are melancholic but they’re often infused with a wry humour. As is so often the case with short stories, there are a multitude of quotes I could pick but here are a few that particularly stood out for me:
Her knees were lovely and brown, though possibly a little thickset, but as it was a case of mother fist and her five daughters up in the pebbledash cottage, this was not a deal-breaker. (The Coast of Leitrim)
The morning was bright, with a breeze that moved the light’s sharp points on the lanes, and the hedges were opulent with berries and the high grasses raced in the late-summer fields. (Deer Season)
They entered my pub like a squall of hectic weather. There was a kind of cheerful eeriness about them… …He was fey and thin and whippety; she had the remnants of a sharp-boned beauty yet. (Toronto and the State of Grace)
He had about forty different faces. He would arrange his face to match precisely the tang or timbre of the death described. (Who’s Dead McCarthy)
I won’t be leaving it another five years to get my hands on Barry’s previous collections, for sure.
Canongate Books: Edinburgh 9781782116219 192 pages Hardback