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Many fiction writers are attracted to non-existent but identifiable settings. Thomas Hardy created Wessex, Robert Musil transformed Austria-Hungary into Kakania, and in Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner literally mapped his Yoknapatawpha county. At once Lafayette, Mississippi, and not Lafayette, Mississippi, Yoknapatawpha offered readers a familiar setting without the danger of their imaginations snagging on the join between reality and fiction.
Colin Barrett confidently secures this same blend of familiarity and freedom with the first line of his debut short-story collection. “My town,” the hungover Jimmy states, “is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.” No map of County Mayo includes Glanbeigh, but the frustrations, longings and missteps of its population will be known to many. Barrett evokes the lives of his young characters – bouncers, petrol station attendants and minor criminals – with great skill, describing sensitivity and harshness in a way that doesn’t overdo either side of that equation.
Some, such as Bat in “Stand Your Skin”, are victims who try to hide from the world in drink and late-night motorbike rides. Others, such as the criminal enforcer Arm, try to bend it to their will. But the world Barrett creates is intractable, and scornful of such efforts.
Nature is hard in Barrett’s stories, and sometimes absurd: on a train journey a man seems to see the same sullen cow in the same sodden field every time he looks through the window. Barrett vividly describes his corner of Mayo, from the “gnarled jawbone of the coastline” to the “massed dry ticking of the bramble ditches” in summertime. And what is seen of the land reflects states of mind, as with the depressed alcoholic narrator of “Diamonds” who sees that recurring cow, and who drives past “long rumpled drifts of frozen snow choking the ditches, their ridges sooted with exhaust”.
Just as the land provides signposts to character, so do names. In the ominous novella “Calm With Horses”, Douglas Armstrong goes by the name of Arm, and the reduction to body part is apt and fateful. His is a morality tale, spilt blood leading to more blood spilt. Following a murder, Arm considers a set of railings beside the sea:
“The railings were eaten through, thinned to crusted spindles of rust at their most exposed points. Beyond them lay the rush-topped hillocks and sandbars, the sand milk-blue in the moonlight. Arm scanned the boiling surf for a long time, watched the way each wave rose, evolved like a fortification, and then collapsed.”
This Ozymandian moment prefigures the collapse of Arm and his friend Dympna’s small criminal empire, and shows the agility with which Barrett can shuttle between realist detail and metaphorical significance.
So too does “The Clancy Kid”, which deepens along its course into something unexpectedly strange and resonant. Fresh from a run-in with a rival, Jimmy and his friend Tug take a route home that seems to blend the present and the distant past as they leave the streets of Glanbeigh behind:
“Slender reeds brush against one another as cleanly as freshly whetted blades. The wet shore-stone, black as coal, glints in its bed of algae. Crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts …”
Guarding a bridge across the river they encounter a “king”, a young boy whose face is “decorated with what looks like tribal warpaint”. Crossing the bridge a tree’s branches reach for their faces “like witches’ fingers”. These folkloric details seem to connect Jimmy and Tug’s earlier conflict with their rival Cuculann – an Ulster name, and in Irish legend an enemy of Connacht and Mayo – with episodes from the Celtic sagas. Myth making, the story seems to suggest, is a continual, irresistible process for all of us.
In “Kindly Forget My Existence” two men, Doran and Eli, sit in a pub debating whether to attend the funeral of Maryanne, bandmate and long-estranged lover of both. The story bristles with references to mortality: the pub’s name and location (The Boatman neighbours the graveyard), the ticking clock Doran cannot ignore, Eli’s wet coat slung over his arm like the “lustreless corpse of a drowned animal”, and the war story they are told by a Bosnian barman. Looming above these elements is that title, a line from James Joyce’s “The Dead”, the story that concludes Dubliners. The words belong to Gabriel Conroy, a light-hearted remark at a dinner party (“kindly forget my existence, ladies and gentlemen, for a few minutes”), the irony being that by the story’s close this is precisely what has happened. Gabriel discovers his wife has more intense feelings for a boy she loved long ago than for him, relegating him to a sort of death in life. Just as “the dead” in Joyce’s story turns out to be a multivalent designation, so Barrett’s title, once the story is ended, appears to gesture in several directions at once.
Wary, as Arm should have been, of the limitations of a forceful approach, Barrett doesn’t impose these meanings. Rather his stories invite second readings that – the mark of really good work – seem to uncover sentences that weren’t there the first time around. Chekhov once told his publisher that it isn’t the business of a writer to answer questions, only to formulate them correctly. Throughout this extraordinary debut, but particularly in the excellent stories that bookend it, Colin Barrett is asking the right questions.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Young Skins review – ‘An extraordinary debut short-story collection’ | Books