That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry – beautifully pitched short stories

Justine Jordan
·4-min read

“Here’s a very old joke – Cause of Death: the west of Ireland.” The misfits and mavericks who people Kevin’s Barry’s third short story collection are as vulnerable as ever to that landscape’s “glamorous and drunk making” aspect; the wild, doomy, transporting strain that runs from the punky dystopia of his Impac-winning debut novel, City of Bohane, through the Goldsmiths winner Beatlebone and on to last year’s tragicomic Night Boat to Tangier. “This place could wreak fucking havoc on a man’s prose if you let it,” remarks the narrator of “Old Stock”, who inherits his uncle’s cottage facing the Bluestack Mountains. It’s a story brimming with both the desire for and the fear of strong feeling, handled with a loose, supple comedy. His change in circumstance threatens some test or transformation for the narrator; rapture and resignation compete, and in the end he backs away. “I knew well I was a maggot.”

Elsewhere the drama between individual and setting unfolds as fable, as shaggy dog story, or as country and western ballad. In the title story, a pregnant teenager parked up in a forest awaits the outcome of her boyfriend’s unwise heist on a petrol station. “Her man in jail and a child at the breast – it was all playing out by the chorus and verse.” In “Ox Mountain Death Song”, a romp of a story with a sting in its tail, a guard is on the trail of a local ne’er do well who’s been “planting babies all over the Ox Mountains since he was 17 years old”. Sergeant Brown’s darkest attribute appears at first to be a sweet tooth; as he pursues the charismatic young Canavan, he sucks honey from a squeezable tub. Barry holds myth-making and dull reality in teasing balance, with a kind of comic double vision winking at the operatic and the bathetic by turns. Generations pass in the shadow of the mountains, “and only the trousers changed”, from sackcloth, gabardine and denim on to “the nylon trackpant, and then to the cotton sweats”. Whitethorn trees encroach into nearly every story, whether foaming with blossom or waving gnarly branches, carrying their aroma of death and magic. Fate, doom and disaster are lightly invoked, and swiftly brought down.

Barry holds myth-making and dull reality in balance, his comic vision winking at the operatic and the bathetic by turns

Barry’s rich comic and lexical gifts have shone particularly in his short fiction, ever since his tightly wrought debut collection There Are Little Kingdoms in 2007. The stories collected here are more relaxed, whimsical, even impressionistic. In one of the strongest pieces, “The Coast of Leitrim”, a typically awkward protagonist falls for a Polish waitress. This battle between long-term loneliness and the urge for love showcases what Barry does so well, effortlessly shifting narrative gear from the casually omniscient (Seamus possesses “a kind of native sneakiness, though he would have been surprised to have been told this”) to a howl of interior pain (the nights “were never-fucking-ending … landscapes sombre and with twisted figures”). Had he written it a decade ago, he said in a recent interview , “there’d be blood on the walls”; Barry in mellower mood is more subtle and surprising. Though the withdrawn, aloof Seamus “could handle just about anything, he felt, shy of a happy outcome”, the pair seem well matched – despite the gulf between cultures and sexes, between one individual and the next. The prose keeps its secrets, as does Katherine: “She sighed at his kiss as though in sadness but turned and held him and told him that she loved him.” Her chubby knees are a catalyst for his inevitable dissatisfaction, yet perhaps Seamus’s descent through the prewritten scripts of jealousy and male self-destructiveness can be halted by the idiosyncrasies of the shared world they have built. The joke of the title is that the coast of Leitrim is just four kilometres long – but maybe that is long enough.

In “Extremadura (Until Night Falls)” the narrator has sloped off to Spain, leaving his ancient parents back in Ireland pining for him by the obligatory whitethorn. So many of the men in this collection have shrunk from human company into derelict cottages and silent forests; this one wanders the back roads for years, like a Beckett antihero to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga. “Sometimes I’m not sure what century I’ve mistaken this one for.” As with the novelist in “Old Stock”, “there was a time when I tried to fill the sky with words”, but now words are receding, the world stripped down to its elements: a sunset, a dog, a road, a broken heart.

Yet another writer measures language against loss in the brief but beautifully turned final story “Roethke in the Bug House”, based on the American poet’s brush with madness on a small island off County Galway in 1960. In the interests of literature, Roethke embraces the drink, the drama, the fierce emotional weather: “Because brokenheartedness is the note that sustains always and this he can play at will.” However brokenhearted, Barry’s stories always sing.

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry is published by Canongate (#14.99). To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.