If All the World and Love Were Young

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A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry

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.

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