At The Rumpus, Shawn Andrew Mitchell reviews Dark Lies the Island, the new short story collection by the Irish writer Kevin Barry. Mitchell quotes a number of the book’s more interesting idioms and perceives “an impolitic decadence to how Barry couples his words.” (Related: we interviewed Barry a few weeks ago.)
Two works of fiction from Irish writers really struck me this year. One was Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island, a boisterous and beautiful collection of stories. Barry is a prose wizard whose stories pulse on the page with all the humor and viciousness of life itself. The other book was Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, a hypnotic piece of writing that reinvents all those so-called literary reinventions of the crime novel. It makes the familiar strange and the strange even stranger and breaks us free of the usual procedural procedures, clears room for real thought and feeling. As The Millions recently noted, I was a major admirer of John the Posthumous by Jason Schwartz. Claire Messud beat me to the punch in these pages, but I also loved Victoria Redel’s new collection, Make Me Do Things. Portugal’s Jacinto Lucas Pires put in a great performance with The True Actor, a story of artistic confusion and generational despair in austerity-era Lisbon. I’m a few years late on these but Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm and Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers both floored me, or maybe the Cooper actually walled me (read the book). Jenny Offill’s about-to-be-published Dept. of Speculation is spectacular.
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I went to the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last month for a very simple reason. I wanted to tell James McBride, in person, what I’m going to tell you now: his novel, The Good Lord Bird, one of five finalists for the fiction award, is the most astonishing book I read all year. It’s one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.
“Why, thank you very much,” McBride said from under the brim of his porkpie hat when I bumped into him at the pre-awards cocktail party and told him how I felt about his book. When I wished him luck at the awards ceremony later in the evening and told him I was pulling for him to win, he waved his arm at the cavernous banquet room and said, “At this point it doesn’t really matter. It’s all good.”
I didn’t expect McBride to win the National Book Award that night because he was up against bigger names — Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Rachel Kushner — and I long ago stopped believing that artistic awards are based solely on artistic merit. McBride obviously didn’t expect to win, either, because when his name was called out as the winner for fiction, he stepped to the podium without a prepared speech, visibly surprised. “I didn’t think I would win today,” he told the crowd of 700. Then, echoing what he had said to me earlier at the cocktail party, he added, “If any of the others writers had won I wouldn’t feel bad because they’re all fine writers. But it sure is nice to win.”
And it sure is nice to see such a deserving winner. The Good Lord Bird is narrated by Henry Shackleford, a young slave in the Kansas territory who is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, then, passing as a girl, follows Brown on his various military and political campaigns, all the way to the disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a major catalyst for the Civil War. (The book’s title refers to the red-headed woodpecker, a bird whose feathers serve as charms, a bird so beautiful that when people see one, they cry, “Good Lord.”) Henry, known as Henrietta or “Onion” to Brown and his ragtag army, narrates the story in a frontier vernacular that is by turns hilarious, bawdy, and wise. Her sharpest insights are on race and slavery, and they’re as valid today as they were a century and a half ago. No one, black or white, slave or free, gets a free ride from Henrietta Shackleford, including Henrietta Shackleford. Here, for instance, are her thoughts on the lies black people tell themselves: “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception.” And here’s Henrietta on what it means to be black: “Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse.”
The novel has obvious antecedents in the works of Twain and Cervantes, James Baldwin and William Styron. But its framing device — even its opening lines — owe a debt to another tall tale insinuated from American history, Thomas Berger’s indelible epic of the Indian wars, Little Big Man. That novel purports to be the tape-recorded reminiscences of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, a white man who was snatched by Cheyenne Indians as a boy and grew up straddling the racial divide, living with both Indians and whites, finally fighting alongside Gen. George Armstrong Custer and becoming the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The Good Lord Bird purports to be the reminiscences of 111-year-old Henry Shackleford, written down by a preacher in 1942, then locked away and finally salvaged from a church fire in 1966. Instead of straddling the racial divide, Henry crosses other lines — between male and female, freeman and slave, country rube and city slicker — and he winds up in the heat of battle alongside John Brown, becoming the only black survivor of the raid on Harpers Ferry.
Here’s the opening of The Good Lord Bird: “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” And here’s the opening of Little Big Man: “I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.” Even the climactic battle scenes share a chapter title: McBride’s is “Last Stand”; Berger’s is “The Last Stand.” (In a follow-up e-mail, McBride acknowledged Berger’s influence, adding that he also drew on the writings of Leon Litwack and Daryl Cumber Dance.)
I don’t buy books or movie tickets based on awards, and I’m proud to be able to say that I bought my copy of The Good Lord Bird before it was nominated for the National Book Award and I finished reading it before the awards ceremony. That’s not to say I’m opposed to book awards. As they long as they connect readers with writers — and sell books — I’m all for them. McBride’s publisher, Riverhead Books, announced that it was printing an additional 45,000 copies of The Good Lord Bird as soon as the award was announced, bringing the number in print to more than 82,000. I hope they sell like Krispy Kremes. James McBride is an important and thrilling writer, and he deserves to be widely read.
None of the above is to denigrate the other four fiction finalists for this year’s National Book Award. As McBride put it, they are all fine writers. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, in particular, struck me as a book that announced the arrival of a major talent. The novel, which roams from the Bonneville salt flats to the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s to the political barricades in Italy, was a stirring expansion of the promise Kushner showed in her 2008 debut, Telex From Cuba, which was also a National Book Award finalist. Both novels exhibit Kushner’s outsized gifts: her ambition, her narrative dexterity, her ability to paint complex characters and put them in motion in vividly imagined historical settings. Whether she’s writing about the First World War, pre-revolutionary Cuba, or the 1970s art scene, Kushner succeeds because she understands how to handle her prodigious historical research. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true does not mean it has a place.”
There were other delights this year. One of the chiefest, because it was so personal, was the publication of Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider’s View of a State Gone Wrong, a sweeping history of the chicanery that has been festering under the state capitol’s green dome in Harrisburg, Pa., for more than a century. It was written by a veteran shoe-leather reporter named Brad Bumsted, who happens to be the man who took me under his wing and taught me the reporter’s craft at the daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, Pa., back in the 1970s. As I wrote in my essay about Keystone Corruption, “Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on — not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better.”
Though it was published late last year, I’ve got to mention a gem of a book that should burnish the reputation of a writer who has written five novels that are classics, even though too few people have read them. Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings, is a great teeming smorgasbord of Portis’s journalism, travel writing, short stories, drama and memoir. The book also includes a rare interview with Portis and tributes from admirers, including Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, and Donna Tartt. In addition to its abundant wit and wisdom, this book is virtually a connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in newspaper city rooms in Tennessee, Arkansas and New York. I hope it will attract new readers to Portis’s novels, Norwood, True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos.
Another writer who deserves a wider audience is Nick Turse, who produced a magisterial work of history this year called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Turse argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation ,and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration — not a one-off atrocity called My Lai — but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. This book’s lessons, like James McBride’s insights on race, are as valid today as they were when America was blundering its way to a shameful military disaster four decades ago.
A pleasant surprise landed in my mailbox in April — a handsome new paperback edition of They Don’t Dance Much, the only novel James Ross published in his lifetime, now widely regarded as the progenitor of “country noir.” This new edition, published by Mysterious Press, includes a foreword by Daniel Woodrell, a Ross acolyte who says he first read the novel in the 1970s because George V. Higgins “vouched for it as both literature and a good time.” A funny, bloody, world-wise tale of violent doings at a North Carolina roadhouse during the Depression, the book was published in 1940 to high praise from Flannery O’Connor, among others, but it sold poorly and soon disappeared. A new edition appeared in the 1970s, attracting a new generation of fans, including Woodrell. And now, another three and a half decades after the second edition, we have a third. As Woodrell writes, “They Don’t Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but has never been successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light.”
Last but far from least, this year the Irish writer Kevin Barry followed up his blistering novel, City of Bohane, with an equally strong collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island. The man uses the English language like a musical instrument. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: You must read Kevin Barry.
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Another year of living, another year of reading. And, if you’re like us, when you look back, you’ll mark out the year in books — weeks, months, even whole seasons that will forever be wedded in the mind to a memorable reading experience. Each book put back on the shelf becomes a postcard reminder.
And now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, we become the postcard collectors, learning where the minds of some of our favorite writers and thinkers traveled in 2013.
For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2014 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2013 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City.
Alice McDermott, author of Someone.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for The Walkmen.
Sergio De La Pava, author of A Naked Singularity
Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing.
Norman Rush, author of Subtle Bodies.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure.
Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon.
Garth Risk Hallberg, staff writer for The Millions, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
David Gilbert, author of And Sons.
Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger.
Jason Diamond, literary editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Michael Nye, author of Strategies Against Extinction.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives.
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.
Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light.
Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor of io9.
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge.
Scott Turow, author of Identical.
Chang-rae Lee, author of The Surrendered.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers.
Tom Drury, author of Pacific.
Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns.
Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Paul Harding, author of Enon.
Janice Clark, author of The Rathbones.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods.
Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors.
Mohsin Hamid, author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Lola Quartet.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City.
Tess Malone, intern for The Millions.
Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of Long for This World.
Kathryn Davis, author of Labrador.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask.
Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin.
Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil.
Kelly Link, author of Monstrous Affections.
Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking.
Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed.
Kate Milliken, author of If I’d Known You Were Coming.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times Book Review.
Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird.
Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.
Kevin Barry, author of Dark Lies the Island.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape.
Ann Hood, author of The Obituary Writer.
Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction.
The Imp of the Perverse, not Patrick, may be the patron saint of this particular Irishman. Read the fictions of 2013 IMPAC winner Kevin Barry — he snagged the 100,000-euro prize with the bloody and lyrical novel City of Bohane — and you’ll discern the presence of a little demon stalking his people, a green-eyed creeping death with a rain-wracked ginger topknot. These souls find doing the right thing, whether it be moral or rational, quite the difficulty. The barriers are often karmically insurmountable. And as in his new book, the award-winning collection Dark Lies the Island, the affliction makes for consistently glorious, and often hilarious, reading.
Burn enough hours with the mind behind it all and you’ll detect certain immutable qualities, including a genuine affability, a grindstone work ethic, and immense empathy. The lattermost, a good thing for any writer, seems to be what also makes his readings among the most entertaining and virtuosic I’ve ever witnessed. The confidence and timing of a seasoned actor or comedian come naturally — the characters are made flesh — and as a story unspools in Barry’s easy Irish timbre, it reeks of the real, of the truth, no matter how fantastical the tale.
Barry recently visited Oregon for Portland’s Wordstock festival, and as is required by law here, I invited him out for some cycling (“I’ll ride 80k a day”) and some pints at the legendary Horse Brass Pub (“You Americans — look, if it’s over 5 percent, it isn’t beer; it’s fucking tawny port wine”). We inevitably found a good session beer to his liking and then talked at length about his work, the subconscious, the ’burbs, failure, the supernatural, Southern writers, comic fiction, and Ireland’s formidable literary legacy.
The Millions: Some biography, please.
Kevin Barry: I’m from Limerick city, on the west coast of Ireland. I’m 44. I’ve published three books, and I cycle my bike a lot in County Sligo. I live in an old police station there, in a swamp, essentially. And if I don’t write in the day, I don’t feel good for anything much.
TM: Did you grow up in Limerick?
KB: Pretty much in Limerick city until my late teens, in the suburbs. And when you grow up in an Irish suburb in the seventies, you may as well be in a suburb of Toronto or Phoenix. Most of the cultural feeds are precisely the same, except there’s also something slightly other about the language. Irish writers maybe have a slight edge because of the way we fucking mangle the English language. We have no rules for it. The way we deliver our stories is changing all the time, but I don’t think there’s any fear for the story. Human beings need stories as much as they need beer and trousers and hats and food and shelter.
TM: You hear early humans likely discovered fire a million years ago. We’ve been telling stories, in some form, around campfires for a million years.
KB: And it won’t stop. In terms of Irish writing, we must never underestimate the effect of 300 days of rain a year. We’re indoors a lot of the time, and we need to make shit up. We’d go nuts if we didn’t. But, yeah, I’m a kid of the suburbs and still have strange romantic notions about suburban life and that feeling on summer evenings. It always puzzles me that there isn’t more suburban art and literature.
TM: Maybe people are trying to escape the suburbs psychologically.
KB: Yeah, it’s like they’re so bland they can’t be mythic.
TM: Cheever made them mythic. It’s a liminal place, the hybrid city-country.
KB: There’s some French word that I can’t think of at the moment, where city bleeds into countryside, that edge of town. It’s a kind of nowhere land, with odd tensions from either side pulling. Nothing as eerie as walking around a suburb at 4 a.m. on a summer-night morning with nobody around and just a little bit of wind in the trees and leaves. And falling in love or out of love with some girl, and you’re 17. Those moments stay with you, in the sodium light.
TM: Does that shape your work?
KB: I remember talking once to a bunch of American students. And they were stunned and horrified to learn that Ireland has suburbs. Even though so many of us in Ireland grow up in the suburbs, they almost never show up in Irish literature. Because it doesn’t suit the mythos, which is either the Ulysses of the big city or the John McGahern small towns or the farm and the bleak austerity of the farmland. But Irish suburban life has almost never been done. The working-class cities, Limerick and Cork—that language has never appeared in Irish literature. I tried to bring some of it into City of Bohane. I hate the word resource applied in any way to literature or art, but it is a resource. It’s a very strange, weird, mangled, beautiful, tender, lovely take on English.
TM: You’re obviously besotted by the language, and you work its angles and curves to great effect. I picture the Oxford English Dictionary sinking into a Gaelic bog. But you don’t sacrifice clarity, even in your novel, which is a sustained, successful voice experiment. A high-low style seems to come easily to you, like a tune on the air.
KB: Thinking specifically in terms of the novel, I’ve always been drawn to work that tries to blend the high and the low. Saul Bellow in the fifties, with Augie March, trying to do Chicago street talk but the literary fucking high style as well, and really going for it. Martin Amis in the eighties in London. When I came to write City of Bohane, I had twin ambitions for it. I wanted it to be a grand, visceral entertainment, a real pulpy fucking page-turner, but also a serious language experiment. It was fun to write, and increasingly it seems to me that I should be having fun at the desk. On the very simple equation that if I’m having a good time at my end, the dear, beloved reader is having a good damn time at the far end. A lot of writers say that they don’t think about the reader at all. I’m a complete fucking whore for the reader. If someone picks up my book, they’re really doing me a fucking turn, and I want to give them a good time on many different levels. So I try to make every page and sentence pop. And that causes weird technical difficulties as a writer. It makes your work very intense as a reading experience. With City of Bohane, I sometimes think to tell the story right it should’ve been a much longer book, but the language was too intense. I think 280 pages is fine, because it’s fucking… It’s a wallop in the face.
TM: Some people can’t take it. Some of us eat it up, the sustained performance on the page. And it’s a first-person narrator. But there can be fatigue.
KB: People either tend to really love it and be evangelical of its cause or go, “Fuck all, this is not for me.” Which is fine. I would always take strong reactions over mild ones. It’s a book you have to read with the ears. You have to listen to it. And you have to do a bit of work at the start, and that’s kind of a difficult area now in novels. I think previously, as readers, we were prepared to give a novel a bit of time. You have a 900-page Russian door-stopper from the 19th century, and you give it a hundred pages, and it’d be fucking torture turning those pages. They’re like lead, you know? But then that magical thing happens where suddenly you’re trapped in the world. You’ve earned it.
TM: It’s the same with Shakespeare. Suddenly you’re in and it flows.
KB: I suspect now the reader won’t give you that much time anymore. It makes it a good time for the short story. I think, increasingly, people give as much time to a book as they will to an art-house movie or an indie film. I have this conversation all the time with my editor in London, and he says, “No, man, literature should be the alternative to all that white noise. It should be a quiet, immersive space where we go to get away from all that stuff.”
TM: A deeper escapism and amusement.
KB: Yeah, and maybe he’s right. Until recently, I hadn’t read the Booker Prize–winning Hilary Mantel novels, the Henry the Eighth stuff, you know? She has what I call “thumb.” You just want to turn the pages and keep going with it.
TM: In your work there seems to be the influence of writers from the American South. Barry Hannah and Charles Portis come to mind. A lot of Southern and Irish writers strike me as Hearers of the Music, profoundly taken by language. It seems that they particularly relish the poetry that can be drawn out of prose. Baudelaire wrote, “Always be a poet, even in prose.”
KB: To my shame, I’ve never read Charles Portis. Love Barry Hannah. There is an interesting correlation between Irish and Southern writers. We face similar difficulties, in terms often of the dialogue. You don’t want to over-egg it. But at the same time, people do fucking talk like that. So you have to be true to that as well. I think Hannah gets a beautiful balance.
TM: The dialects seem to have arisen from remoteness and insularity, fed over centuries by religious communalism. Flannery O’Connor wrote — and I once heard Hannah echo this — that the South is “Christ-haunted.” Is it the same for Ireland, with the huge Catholic and smaller Protestant presences?
KB: There’s no doubt. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but there’s Catholic prose and Protestant prose. Flannery O’Connor’s prose is Catholic fucking prose. John Updike’s prose is Protestant fucking prose. And that’s fine. There’s also Jewish prose, which dominated my whole reading staples in my twenties. I wanted to be the next great Jewish writer, which was difficult, as I was a ginger-haired child in Cork, in the south of Ireland. That didn’t work out. Without being too reductive, I would say the Protestant strain is to strip down and to pare back, to reduce. Beckett is a Protestant writer. Joyce is a Catholic writer. Joyce piles it all on to the fucking page. And for a long time in the 20th century, Irish writers had a great difficulty. They had to go one of the two paths. But there was a third way, and the stream in Irish writing I really love is that mischievous, anarchic, and inventive one that goes back to writers like Flann O’Brien, back to the 1700s to Laurence Sterne and Dean Swift. It’s a kind of crazy, funny, nasty strain.
TM: Tristram Shandy.
KB: Yes. I like my literature to be funny, the comic mode, and I think most of my favorite writers at some level are comic writers. Someone like Saul Bellow. Herzog is a novel about a nervous breakdown, a crack-up, and it’s fucking hilarious. Philip Roth writes terrifying novels about all sorts of disintegration and horrible, awful masculine emotions that are deathly funny. I think comedy is the most true human mode. It’s how we get through, through…
TM: The tragicomedy?
KB: For sure. My short stories, a lot of them are very dark, but I think almost always at the end they are comedic.
TM: That’s a great insight, of being Irish and that choosing between Joyce and Beckett. Beckett said Joyce was a synthesizer — put everything in, tried to bring it all together — but that he was an analyzer, and he was trying to take out every fucking thing he could. A reaction against Joyce and that high postmodernism.
KB: Absolutely. What I love about Beckett’s stuff, really, is that he plowed the same kind of stony ground for 50 years. And did him no harm. You can still bring new things all the time. In my own instance, I think the novels are going to be very different. The short stories are in lots of ways. I want to let the story dictate the style.
TM: The story is the master.
KB: Rather than the other way around. Don DeLillo once said that when he was writing, all that interested him was the sound. He said something like “I’ll happily change the subject of the sentence for the sake of how it sounds. And I will let the sound dictate the story.” I thought, Fucking heroic, man. And a story is a song, and it’s a tune. It’s a melody, and you follow it along.
TM: Dark Lies the Island is your new collection, your second. The stories are highly atmospheric. Whether you’re mixing despair and humor, delving into evil in disguise, or plying supernatural undercurrents, the particular psychology evoked just infuses the narrative.
KB: I think it’s the most intense prose form. There’s nothing like a fucking good story when you’re in its grip. I love the novel for its looseness, in the way that life is shapeless, but I just love that feeling when you’re in the hands of a really good storyteller and you find yourself sitting up a little straighter and turning down the radio and turning off the computer and chucking the kids out the window and just getting closer to the page. And you’re trapped, line by line. To make it that intense an experience for the reader is fucking difficult. I’m also really interested in the essay. It’s more front-of-the-brain.
TM: And you’re on the line. It’s you. You can’t blame it on a character.
KB: I think fiction is superior. You can’t lie in fiction. Your soul is there, pinned and wriggling on the page. You can lie much easier in nonfiction. Every single sentence in a short story is bearing weight, and for that reason most go wrong on me. Most end up on the floor. I write ten or twelve of the fuckers a year. One or two will get seen by anyone. I have a workroom at home in County Sligo that’s just littered with the corpses and near-corpses of half-dead zombie stories. It’s appalling shit. It’s fucking terrible. But I will always finish them, because I think that’s when you know you’re a pro: when you finish even the bad stuff. Just to get a finished object there.
TM: And to know.
KB: And to know. And I’ll do something else.
TM: Your stories read as deeply felt. Sometimes with the first-person stories, you think, That happened to him.
KB: I do think your best ones come out of your own experience. Everything is feed. Fiction happens in the subconscious, the back of the mind, that place, and I think your life experience has to sit back there for a while before it comes out. I think you have very little control as a writer, often. The decision to write fiction is a kind of a pact you make with your subconscious. You say, “Give me stuff. I’ll be there. I’ll be a pro. I’ll be at my fucking desk. I’ll be waiting for it.”
TM: “I’ll be the vessel.”
KB: Yeah. It’s sitting there. It took me a long time to get there. In my twenties I was writing music reviews, theater reviews, stuff like that, and it was doing fine, making the rent, having a good time out and about… Not getting happy. Knowing there was a part of my brain that I wasn’t using that I wanted to use. But it’s difficult when you’re writing sort of journalism stuff all day to find the time and space to write the fiction. I had to get poor. I bought a 12-foot caravan, a little trailer home, and I sat it on a beach in west Cork, and I spent a summer out there writing the next great Jewish-American novel. And it was a fucking monstrosity. But it taught me it has to be your main thing, the thing you do when you get up in the morning. The time especially for first drafts is when I’m barely awake.
TM: Fresh out of the dream state. John Gardner talked about the “vivid and continuous dream.” And a dream is a wild and fuzzy thing.
KB: Writing fiction and dreaming are very close. I won’t even have a cup of coffee when I get up. I’ll have a cup of weak tea. I don’t want to come up from it too quick. I want to stay in that kind of murky, blobby, kind of dream-shapey world and just— I don’t care about the sentences or the sense or anything. I just want to spew down words onto the page. And just slow accumulation. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and it’s very important to me to do something on it every day, even if it’s 20 minutes, to just try and make a daily connection with it. Because if you miss a day, it can suddenly completely start to go away. Writers have always sought ways to procrastinate. Editing and cutting is the enjoyable part.
TM: Bringing it out of the raw, like Michelangelo’s Captives.
KB: It’s the block of stone. Just cut away at it and see what you can get. There is a corollary to that. I think you can cut too much.
TM: The tendency toward the Carveresque, no pun intended. And a lot of that was Gordon Lish.
KB: Yeah. Or you can polish too much, hone too much, and take the original impulse and life force out of a piece.
TM: In your stories, and especially in your novel, place is always a primary force, a character, often sinister or supernatural.
KB: If I have a single, fundamental belief as a writer — and I suppose it’s quite an esoteric one — it’s that human feeling doesn’t just reside in humans but that it settles into our places, and I think very often fiction is about springing that feeling from places. [The recent New Yorker story] “Ox Mountain Death Song” comes from being out on my bike. I go out around the Sligo hills in the fucking drizzle and rain and wind. But it’s nice because your mind kind of unspews, you know?
TM: Woody Allen’s long, hot shower.
KB: For sure, and I was about three, four years going out cycling in the Ox Mountains, which by American standards aren’t mountains at all; they’re fucking hills, you know? But anytime I went, I got this kind of bleak, dark feeling into my bones. And eventually I said, “I’ll try a new method, a new tactic. I’ll go out and I’ll write the story on site.” I went out and I stayed in a cheap hotel in a little beach town in the shadow of the Ox Mountains and wrote a really rough draft in three days and kind of forgot about it for a few months. I’m often writing two stories at the same time, and one of them is kind of an attempt not to write the other one. There’s always a phantom story underneath. But there’s something John Cheever said in his beautiful introduction to his collected stories: stories remind you very much of the time in your life when you wrote them. Of the place, where you were. What I love about him is he’s deeply fucking weird, you know? Those are really strange, eerie, kind of crazy stories.
TM: He’s doing things that others just weren’t doing. You can say Shirley Jackson, a few others here and there, maybe. But, really, “The Swimmer”?
KB: Amazing story.
TM: Nobody was doing anything like that.
KB: Nobody was doing that stuff. I love to read stories that are coming out now and see what’s happening. But I do love to go back, to read the classic stuff. Someone like V.S. Pritchett, in the 20th century, was a hugely famous story writer. He was in The New Yorker five times a year. In Europe he was the most famous British man of letters. And he had one of those weird things where, after his death, in the late nineties, he just faded from view instantly. But you go back and read him and they’re nuts. And they’re all built on talk, on mad, deranged, demotic, provincial UK kind of talk. As much as you should always keep up with what’s happening and who’s pushing things out at the edge, don’t forget these guys. They put lifetimes’ worth of serious talent into developing the short story and bringing it to where it is. And it’s one of our greatest achievements as human beings, the short-story form. I think it’s really sublime when it’s good. I think what unifies the great story writers is that they stick with it throughout their careers. Sometimes you get the guy who comes out with a brilliant debut collection of stories and just goes on and writes novels. I really hate that shit. Keep writing stories. It’s not an apprentice form for the novel. It’s no accident that the very best writers of stories alive are the people who keep writing them all the way through their careers. Alice Munro, William Trevor, George Saunders.
TM: But we want your novels, too. That expansion. Like in City of Bohane, you’ve got small town, big tapestry. The Bohane River divides the city physically and metaphysically. On its way out to sea it seems to leach and drag the wickedness of the long dead out of the boglands of the countryside to poison the city with “the taint.” It feels directly connected to all the great Irish mythology, especially the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Epic life and death sunk into the earth but fluid and moving.
KB: Those influences feed in subconsciously. Human feeling bleeding into the place. Limerick city is quite a troubled city, quite a violent place, lots of gang feuds. It’s known as Stab City. It’s always had lots of knife crime. Once, when I was a cub reporter in the late eighties, there was a great, since-passed-away local politician, a guy called Jim Kemmy, and I met him downtown one time. We were standing by the River Shannon, which is Ireland’s biggest, longest river, which enters the sea through Limerick, and there’d been some horrendous fucking gang feud in town with about five dead on either side. And I remember saying to him, “What’s wrong with us?” And he said, “I don’t know, but I think it’s coming in off the river.” And it stuck with me for years and years and years, and the first line of the novel is “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river.” The taint of place. I try to escape Ireland in the winter often, and I go to Spain, just for some bit of light and blue skies and get out from under the belly of cloud. And I’m a secret bird-watcher. A twitcher. So I went a couple of times, in southern Spain, in Andalucía, to a town called Ronda. There’s a very famous gorge a couple of thousand feet deep. And it’s famous for its choughs, which are crows with red beaks. Amazing fliers. They fly sheer up and down the face of it. So I went there and was looking, and this fucking dark, black, horrendous feeling coming over me, and I’m going, “What the fuck is it?” And getting out of town. Getting out of Ronda on the next bus. Went back couple years later, same thing, down around the gorge. Started doing some research about it and discovered that in the Spanish Civil War 300 prisoners had been made to jump to their deaths, at gunpoint, at the gorge in Ronda. And I’m certain that some of that feeling, that terror, that fucking primeval human horror, has settled into those stones, and I fucking picked some of it up. My brother is a fisherman, loves to fish for trout in Ireland. He talks about a particular lake that he found himself on once in County Clare. And same thing. “Amazing, beautiful summer night. I’m out fishing in my boat out on the lake. Suddenly, ‘Fuck, get outta here.’ Horrible feeling.” Doing some research after: horrible scenes in the Irish famine. Two hundred people starved to death on the shores of this lake.
TM: And you’ve got to have the antennae to pick it up.
KB: I think we all have the antennae at some level.
TM: Some are more sensitive.
KB: Sometimes you’ll shiver and say, “Get outta Dodge.”
TM: Bad mojo. Can you talk about the risks you took with Bohane? I’m curious if there have been any comparisons to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, if only because of the idiomatic invention.
KB: A Clockwork Orange was a hugely important book to me as a teenager. If you go back to it, it’s very much about Britain in the sixties. It’s a projection on the moment when it’s written. It’s about mods and rockers and Brighton Beach. Burgess wrote it when he was living just outside Brighton, and he couldn’t describe that world directly, but he described it brilliantly by doing it at a future remove. In some sense I think City of Bohane is a projection on Irish cities as they are at the moment, when they have over the last 20 years changed unbelievably, for the first time become multicultural places. Lots of new weird, wonderful energies, lots of new dark, dangerous tensions.
TM: Bohane is like a west-of-Ireland western.
KB: It’s a complete western.
TM: It’s very cinematic, and that quite literally plays into the risky and experimental narratorial conceit, a magical first-person omniscient narrator who’s also a character. But not like Vonnegut’s intrusive god-author; it doesn’t come off like that.
KB: I wanted the reader to feel like they were in some awful, horrendous dive bar in a tremendously deranged Irish city in the middle of the 21st century and there’s some crazy old fucking whisky-drunk nut alongside them whispering this demented tall tale into their ears.
TM: And he knows what people are thinking. You believe him.
KB: Yeah, he’s kind of God out there. One of the technical questions was “How much do I show this guy?” I kept him very, very limited. He shows up once or twice. The I word comes in.
TM: It’s a mystery, but I wouldn’t say it’s soft-pedaled. The voice is so strong. But I haven’t noticed anyone else remarking on it. Then we see you win the IMPAC. Obviously, it’s resonating.
KB: That was very cool, winning a big prize.
TM: Can you talk about setting as character and parallel protagonist?
KB: In Bohane in particular, obviously the city is the main character. I guess what it comes out of is when you’ve lived in a city like Limerick or like Cork, you are aware that there is a world out there, outside the city limits, but really it’s just kind of a rumor. It really doesn’t matter. Where you are is the center of the fucking universe. And Bohane is all-encompassing. They refer to anything outside of Bohane as Big Nothin’. It’s that sense that this is the world and this is all that counts. I think that’s familiar to anybody who’s lived or grown up in small cities. They’re just about big enough to be anonymous in, but also they’ve got this kind of weblike, clammy sense of connection to everything. Coincidences can genuinely happen. When people and professors read Dickens now, they say, “Too many coincidences,” right?
TM: But London was a hell of a lot smaller.
KB: London was about 800,000. People would’ve bumped into each other all the time.
TM: So it’s not necessarily a deus ex machina or overwrought orchestration.
KB: I think he was absolutely on the money.
TM: Is Bohane a bit of a mashup of Limerick, where you’re from, and Sligo, where you live now?
KB: Equal parts Limerick, where I lived until I was 20, and Cork, where I moved to and lived until I was 30. The accent I would hear is quite a Cork singsong, quite a melodious accent. I physically see it as Limerick, which is a dark dock town. And there’s west-of-Ireland weather in there. And great, mad renditions of the English language.
TM: About that. Ireland has given us folks considered the greatest writers in, or innovators within, the English language. People think Joyce and Beckett, deathless giants. Yeats. Flann O’Brien. Seamus Heaney. The great Frank O’Connor. And it’s not a very big place. Is it a burden or a source of effulgent pride?
KB: [Laughs] I would never go to my desk in the morning and say, “I must settle down to do some Irish writing here.” One of my great problems with the whole edifice of Irish literature is that it was sometimes quite a hermetic world. The only influences on Irish literature were things that had happened in Irish literature. As if electric light and television and cinema and rock-and-roll and punk and electro and disco had never been invented. I honestly don’t think in nationalistic terms. If you’re positioned in any way in any tradition, it’s better to have good people behind you than fucking twats.
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.