When I wrote an over-the-moon review of Kevin Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, here last year, I thought I was letting readers in on a well-kept secret. I thought wrong. The book got acres of good reviews on both sides of the Atlantic – along with a growing army of devoted readers – and it went on to win the IMPAC Dublin Award, one of the world’s richest literary prizes, besting such brand-name authors as Michel Houellebecq and Haruki Murakami.
Now Barry is back with a new collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island, his second. It shares the virtues that made Bohane such an astonishment – prose that rollicks and judders and constantly delights; a keen ear for the spoken language of Barry’s native western Ireland; and above all, at least in the very best stories, a way of lassoing moments of mystery that have the power to transform the lives of Barry’s characters, a motley Irish medley of disturbed young women, devious old spinsters, blocked poets, thugs, boozers, exiles, and tortured civil servants. There is rich music, high humor, and deep blackness on every page.
I believe this collection of 13 stories can be divided into two roughly equal halves. Half of them are not so much fully formed stories as sketches, riffs, slices of life. If this sets them in a minor key, they are nonetheless uniformly compelling. In “Across the Rooftops,” for instance, two young people fail to connect with a first kiss. End of story. In “Wistful England,” a lovelorn Irishman lives in misery in East London with a bunch of alcoholic ruffians until, one boozy night, his old lover reappears, then promptly vanishes. End of story. In “The Mainland Campaign,” an I.R.A. bomber plants a bomb in a guitar case in a London bookstall, then boards a bus with a blonde German girl. End of story.
Doesn’t sound like much, but there are fully lived lives in all of these sketches, and the writing is a seamless marvel. Here’s an Irish heat wave: “It was dogs-dying-in-parked-cars weather.” Here’s the wave of Americans washing up in Berlin in 2005: “Daily, the gauche and Conversed hordes priced out of San Francisco and Brooklyn were arriving, with their positivity, their excellent teeth, and their MFAs. They could be spotted a mile off in the clubs – their clothes were wrong, their hair was appalling and their dancing was just terrible.” (I was boots-on-the-ground in Berlin at the time and, trust me, this nails it.) And here’s the description of an ornament in a van carrying two brothers, Patrick and Tee-J Mullaney, back into their fated, inescapable life of crime: “Mr. McGurk was a plastic leprechaun attached to the dashboard on a spring and he bobbed along comically as the Hitachi sped. How he had ended up being called Mr. McGurk neither of them could remember. Both brothers would do Mr. McGurk’s voice but Tee-J did it brilliant. He did Mr. McGurk as a cranky old farmer who was always giving out. Mr. McGurk was six inches of green plastic but entirely alive. He was made alive by their love for each other.”
And here is an exchange between the title characters of “Ernestine and Kit,” two charming maiden-aunt types who roam the Irish countryside looking for children to snatch. Of course they don’t see themselves as kidnappers or monsters; they’re guardian angels saving children from horrible parents and worse lives. Here’s the chilling way they rationalize their behavior:
“Would they be hair extensions?” Kit wondered as they passed a young blonde pushing a pram along the roadside verge.
“You can bet on it,” Ernestine said. “The way they’re streaked with that silvery-looking, kind of…”
“Cheap-looking,” Kit said.
“A young mother,” Ernestine said.
“Got up like a tuppenny whore,” Kit said.
“The skirt’s barely down past her modesty, are you watching?”
“I am watching. And that horrible, horrible stonewash denim!”
“Where would the whore be headed for, Kit?”
Kit consulted the road map.
“Lechaun is the next place along,” she said. “Only a stretch up the road from here. Her ladyship is headed into a pub, no doubt.”
“Drinking cider with fellas with earrings and tattoos,” Ernestine said.
“In by a pool table. In a dank old back room. Dank!”
“You can only imagine,” said Kit, and she made the sign of the cross.
“A jukebox and beer barrels and cocaine in the toilets. The misfortunate infant left to its own devices.”
There is no way for this sketch to end other than badly. Deep blackness, indeed.
Then there are the fully formed stories, half a dozen small masterpieces. In “Wifey Redux,” a civil servant whose perfect marriage is fading finds himself fretting that his sexy teenage daughter is about to relive the tragic arc of her mother’s life. The story opens with this gem: “This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my faced pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo’s bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear – this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas Road in Dublin.” A whole world in a single sentence.
Later, the fretful father describers the type of boy his daughter tends to fall for: “The usual type – so far as it had been established – was black-clad, pale-skinned, basically depressed-looking, given to eyeliner and guitar cases, Columbine types, sniper material, little runts in duster coasts, addicted to their antihistamine inhalers, self-harmers, yadda-yadda, but basically innocent.”
Such music never stops coming, much like that gorgeous oily black river that flowed through Barry’s fictional city of Bohane.
In “Wifey Redux” and the other top-flight stories of this collection – “Fjord of Killary,” “Beer Trip to Llandudno,” “Doctor Sot,” “Dark Lies the Island,” and “Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer” – the lead characters experience something that might be called an epiphany, a moment when the deep mystery of life touches them in surprising and unexpected ways and changes the course of their lives.
Flannery O’Connor, a practicing Roman Catholic, chose to see these critical moments, these epiphanies, through a religious lens. In her non-fiction book Mystery and Manners, O’Connor groped for an understanding of such moments and their importance to fiction:
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that is both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.
O’Connor was discussing her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which an escaped convict and his two sidekicks slaughter a family after they wreck their car. The last to die is the Grandmother, who makes the critical gesture. As O’Connor wrote:
There is a point in this story when such a gesture occurs. The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has merely been prattling on about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.
The climactic scene of the story goes like this:
She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why, you’re one of my babies! You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Things do not turn out well for the grandmother, obviously, yet her gesture was not futile. It not only gave us a classic short story, but it planted something in the Misfit’s heart. As O’Connor put it in Mystery and Manners:
I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story… I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.
I have no idea if Barry is a practicing Catholic like O’Connor, an agnostic, an atheist, or a Hindu. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he has absorbed O’Connor’s lessons and used them in his own way to magnificent advantage. Here is the booziferous title character of “Doctor Sot,” who visits a colony of itinerant Rastafarians on the edge of town to give medical advice, then proceeds to get drunk with them and wreck his car, winding up stranded for the night under a blanket with a beautiful young woman:
But after a time her eyes did close. Doctor Sot slid a hand from beneath the blanket and lightly, very lightly, he laid it against her face. He felt the tiny fires that burned there beneath her skin. Her lashes were unspeakably lovely as they lay closed over her light sleep. If Doctor Sot could draw into his palm these tiny fires and place them with his own, he happily would.
Doctor Sot’s gesture – placing his hand on the young woman’s face and feeling the tiny fires that burn there – is enough to reacquaint him with the mystery and magic of life. It is, in a word, his salvation. Take such moments religiously, or don’t. Either way, you must read this impossibly gifted, unspeakably lovely Irish writer named Kevin Barry.