A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry


world stalls, and then sweeps into chaos, and then it gathers again – we emerge
from 2020 woozily, as though from a dark weird dream, grateful, I suppose, that
we’re still going at all, grateful that we can turn our thoughts, just for a
few moments here in the dank and drear mid-winter, to the books that have
sustained us.

I was grateful to Hilary Mantel for many months of the year. Rattling around the house in the County Sligo hills, swinging from bouts of paranoia to moments of strange, demented hilarity, a 900-page doorstopper was just what I needed to stay grounded. Mantel must have sold her soul to Occult forces, I suspect, to have given her three-book portrait of Thomas Cromwell such hallucinogenic clarity, such haunting presence. In The Mirror & The Light, he is quite simply back with us, and while this book may be a little looser and messier than its two predecessors, it’s still more poignant and funnier and more beautifully written than almost anything else of the era.

Also plainly in touch with the Otherworld is David Keenan, a gifted Scottish writer of Irish heritage. His first novel, This Is Memorial Device, was a joyous celebration of the post-punk scene in 1980s Airdrie (now there’s an itch you didn’t know you needed to scratch); it was followed by For The Good Times, a vivid, Scorcesified take on the Northern Ireland Troubles; and now comes Xstabeth, a book about golf (oh yes) and music and sex and much (as they say) more. Keenan allows his stories to come from where they should come from – the dreamworld of the sub-conscious – and his fictional project is one of the most interesting on the go. He deserves a wide audience.

I’ve just finished an ARC of Danielle McLaughlin’s debut novel The Art of Falling, and she proves as elegant and as beguiling here as she did over the short form in her acclaimed collection Dinosaurs On Other Planets. An exploration of one woman’s attempt to step away from the shadows of the past, and from the long shadow thrown by the work of a dead sculptor, it’s full of sudden, unexpected perceptions, and the prose is beautiful.

How To Be Nowhere is the second novel from Tim MacGabhann, a madly talented Irishman currently exiled in Mexico City. It’s a pulsating, narco-Noirish crime novel, written with great verve in what we might call either the Elroyvian or the Bolanian tradition, but full of gloriously skewed Irish humour, too. The world sparkles when genres collide and they do so tremendously here.

Oldies but Goldies? I’d never read William Styron’s fiction until I picked up Sophie’s Choice – it devoured my October and haunts me yet. He has the kind of novelistic chops that I just don’t think exist any more. His sentences are extraordinary, and loopy, in both senses of the word. He is utterly unafraid to barge head-first into the most terrifyingly large subjects – The heart! The soul! The Holocaust! And he is utterly equal to the task.

I’ve been both writing about and reading Theodore Roethke. His poems, whenever chanced upon in an anthology, always cause my bottom lip to wobble, my eyes to fill up. As a personality, he was a car wreck and irresistible – I couldn’t resist putting him into a short story. His poetic line has such a melancholy mid-century glamour to it, and it refracts a special light, the hazed light of dusk, in 1957, as you speed in a taxi to an assignation uptown.

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A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry

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Jean-Patrick Manchette, the French crime novelist who died much too young in 1995, continues to attract new followers, and a cloud of cultish devotion now surrounds the dozen or so slim novels that he left behind. Flinty, sexy, and pacy, they reek evocatively of the 1970s and 1980s in seedy Parisian settings—the waft of hashish burn! the funk of cheap sex!—or in woeful French provincial towns, and they are novels that are shot through with the usual and expected existential despair—he was French after all—but they are fantastic entertainments, too, in that Graham Greeneish way, and they stand up, I believe, as genuine literary artefacts; his unique take on Noir is as good as anything in Roberto Bolaño. Serpent’s Tail have been doing a splendid job of issuing new translations—you might start with Fatale or The Prone Gunman, but anything with that name on the spine is worth a rip.

I love oral biographies, and I picked up an absolute doozy from a bargain bin this year—it’s a pleasantly chubby little number on Robert Altman, compiled by Mitchell Zuckoff and published by Knopf back in 2009. A motley crew of actors and agents and crew members and family and friends and, of course, Altman himself, pitch in their thoughts and reminiscences on his great, radical career, on his many trials and reverses, and on his great joys and successes, too. It’s a monument to a mighty, vivacious life—he was the party boy to end all party boys; a spliff in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other, from about the hour of noon—and to a great purity of vision. To protect that vision, he had to be a monster sometimes, too, and the book doesn’t flinch from the often grim and telling details.    

Page for page, though, the most fun I had with a book this year was with Profiles, a collection of the late Kenneth Tynan’s pieces on show people (to use that wonderful old phrase). His work was sharp but breezy, very warm-hearted but still riddled with venomous gossip, and his critical intelligence had an extremely keen and perceptive edge. His long essay-portraits of artists like Katharine Hepburn and Tom Stoppard are models of the form, and they are way beyond anything being produced now.

Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9 – Fog (FSG) is a beautiful and haunting piece of fiction, worked up from a found diary, and I’m frothing at the mouth waiting for her collection of stories, The Dominant Animal, forthcoming from Daunt Books in the spring.

Meanwhile, back in my own yard, the usual swarm of horrendously gifted young Irish debutantes came yodeling over the hills with their elaborate gifts. Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time (The Stinging Fly/Bloomsbury) was a fabulously entertaining record of what this gifted writer has been up to in the realm of short fiction—it’s very funny stuff. The pages just glide by, but there’s really difficult material and really knotty emotions thrumming along just beneath the blithe surface of things. The poet Stephen Sexton’s first collection, If All the World and Love Were Young, is a brilliant portrait of grief refracted through the prism of a teenage gamer’s swivel-eyed worldview; beautiful vocabulary, sinuous lines, great lurches of emotion. And finally Ian Maleney’s Minor Monuments (Tramp Press) is a superbly weighted essay collection, a portrait of a place and of a family and of a slow, graceful demise.

A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry

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The book I’ve read the most this year is Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño. I read a few pages from it every morning before I crawl across the floor to my desk. It’s Bolaño distilled. It’s a crime story, a death story, a sex story, a love story, but always it refuses to pick up its narrative threads. It never binds. Instead it spins out. It is pure expression. I think Bolaño is the most important guide for fiction writers of this era; in fact, he is a kind of spirit-guide—he shows us what we don’t have to do anymore. The note of his perception rings utterly true on every line. And even in translation his sentences have such a glamorous charge to them.

When night falls, I crawl back across the floor, to the fireside, where this year I’ve been mooning constantly over A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf. It is hugely consoling to see the way she constantly twists on the wires of doubt; she is dismayed by doubt at her own ability, on a daily basis, but also she is strangely enraptured by this same doubt—it fortifies her. You can see her thinking: if I’m worried, that means I must be working. She comes across in places as a desperate old snob but she’s of her era, and as often she seems a really gorgeous person. And I’d personally forgive her a murder for prose like this:
Thursday, August 18th 1921 – … and what I wouldn’t give to be coming through Firle woods, dirty and hot, with my nose turned home, every muscle tired and the brain laid up in sweet lavender, so sane and cool, and ripe for the morrow’s task.
Here in Ireland, if the short story doesn’t get an almighty kick up the arse about every five years or so, it tends to melt down into puddles of lyric reverie. Fortunately, this year was a good, spiky and raucous one—there were some fabulous collections, and most of them came from the small, indie Irish presses. Three I admired: The History of Magpies by Desmond Hogan (Lilliput Press), a witness text by one of our finest prose stylists that peels away the layers to reveal the true, contemporary Ireland, in all its melancholy, gaudiness, and shabby grandeur; Levitation by Sean O’Reilly (Stinging Fly Press), a memorable return from a writer of fierce commitment, and a collection that constantly questions the story as form; and Room Little Darker (New Island Press), a miraculous debut from June Caldwell, whose every sentence roars that she is the real, darkly-comic deal.

Finally, it is conceivable that Virgina Woolf is back, and this time she’s a man—Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is a portrait of an English rural community that’s quiet on the surface, measured in its structure, but astonishing in its effect, and his sentences have a truly Woolfian uncanniness and grace to them. It’s an absolutely beautiful novel.

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A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry

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I gurgled and frothed with sheer animal pleasure all the way through My Lunches with Orson (Metropolitan Books), a transcript of taped conversations between Orson Welles and his friend Henry Jaglom, made over elaborate lunches, in Los Angeles, in the early 1980s, and in which the great director gossiped with magnificent bitchiness about the stars he had known, and wedded, and bedded, and elaborated on the fineries of his craft, and gave masterclasses in story and structure, and talked about poodles, sauces, politics, and poems, and much else besides, and in fact gave the final, incontrovertible evidence that his was one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th century. And also one of the funniest. A lesser-known fact: Orson made his breakthrough in Ireland, as a handsome corn-fed teen, in the early 1930s, when he acted for the legendary Michael Mac Liammoir’s company at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and he confesses in this book that he went on to nourish a life-long hatred of the Irish people, most especially Irish-Americans. Choice anecdote: one day, during a break in rehearsals, Orson asked Michael to give the defining characteristic, in a single word, without thinking too hard about it, of the Irish race, and Michael immediately responded with “malice.” I defy anyone not to read this wonderful book in a sitting.

Speaking of Ireland, the novel Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack has stealthily been developing a cult reputation there since its initial publication in 2005, and this year it finally got an American release through the good offices of Soho Press. This is the near-future story of JJ O’Malley, a kid adopted from a Romanian orphanage who grows up in the west of Ireland and there submits to trials on an experimental prison ship in Killary harbor, aboard which the inmates are induced into coma states to cut down on costs. McCormack is the bastard love-child of John McGahern and JG Ballard, and this is a brilliant book.

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