Monday, September 17, 2012

Kevin Barry's "Dark Lies the Island": Book Review

This second collection, published by London’s Jonathan Cape in early 2012 after his first novel "City of Bohane" garnered praise, offers thirteen stories dispersed across divergent terrain. “Across the Rooftops” hints at tenderness even as “the man who introduced Detroit techno to the savages of Cork city” fumbles his callow youth away in one last attempt at seduction. As with “Wifey Redux,” the narrators find themselves painfully self-aware. They despise their own lurches between inadequacy and savagery as they grapple with women, lust, and fear.

“Wifey” finds the suburbanized narrator avenging himself and his wife of seventeen years, Saoirse, on the smug suitor of his nubile daughter, Ellie. The narrator will end being arrested, face ground into the bonnet of his Volvo, after pursuing sneering tracksuited Aodhan McAdam into a showdown at a big-box store on the Naas Road, Dublin. Barry channels the self-parodic tale of how this mock-hero came to such a sorry end, and barbecued salmon in vac-packs will be the least of the man’s worries, after he fails to adapt to allow a bold live-in swain into his own granite-topped kitchen, with garden patio and big-screen domain overlooking Dun Laoghaire.

One of his best tales, “The Fjord of Killary,” unfolds in a West of Ireland village as a flood engulfs a jerrybuilt pub-disco which must distract its revelers. It’s as if the Titanic drifted from Belfast into a dream world where surreally it transforms into a tilted symbol of Irish stolidity and ingenious, heedless defiance.  Barry surrounds the narrator with copulating, jabbering Belorussian staff, clichéd locals out of Flann O’Brien, and weather which forces the teller to adapt, learn patience, and to wait storms out.

“A Cruelty” updates Joyce’s “An Encounter” into a disturbing older man who bullies a fragile boy waiting in Boyle for a Sligo-Dublin train. The offhand nature of the violence and the threat of more, in such a daytime, mundane setting, jabs the power of its spare, matter-of-fact relation of sudden cruelty. One wonders if the frightened boy will leave, as many in Barry’s stories do, for another destination. “Beer Trip to Llandudno” follows an ale club’s bibulous band along a formidable pub crawl for real brews, and the North Wales setting allows the members to confide in their abandonment or abandoning Ireland, and when they “came over” to Northern England, to start again. Their earnest efforts to drink away their pain highlight the woes they seek to confront and forget as they pass from pub to pub.

More unraveling of family ties comes via “Ernestine and Kit.” Their Sligo itinerary finds this middle-aged pair baby-napping from an Asda checkout line, as again cruelty is unleashed in ordinary settings, while those around them pay attention to video games, barbecues and wine. “The Mainland Campaign” as its title foreshadows takes us back to England, but the insecurity of the young goth charged with setting the bomb in the Camden Town tube station persists. “Ireland is magical,” he tells his a German woman he courts. “England is ironical.” But, he as many in London, cannot fit in. Meanwhile, the Tipperary teen transplant seethes: “If they were the mainland, we were what?”

Similar discontent lingers in “Wistful England,” as another Irish transplant drinks and walks and broods. “Doctor Sot” conveys the venture of an Irish doctor on an outreach program to treat the “sex diseases” of New Age travelers from Devon holed up one atop Slieve Bo, where he comforts a psychotic woman.  “The Girls and the Dogs” skirts similar territory, winding up in a chemical toilet in a trailer near Gort. Nobody in Barry’s stories seems balanced, and this tilt towards the off-kilter characterizes his sympathy.

Ukrainians with tire irons scare the Co. Roscommon inhabitants living in a “White Hitachi” by the side of the road, and more highway predicaments by this stage do show Barry in a rut he needs to get out of. The title story finds Sara, a fresh graduate and a “cutter,” preparing as she looks over Clew Bay in Co. Mayo to do more of the same to herself. UK Memories is the channel of songs she hears from the 1940s on her laptop, as texts come in from Flagstaff and Bremen, and calls from Granada. Sara hears John Lennon sing “For No One” and thinks of him settling near there on Dorinish Island with Yoko as he’d once planned; Sara muses about her mother who’d left with a Dublin broker who bought a failing vineyard in France. Her ties span the world, but she sits with her soundcloud and messages, to decide what to do with her set of knives.

The final story, “Berlin Arkonaplatz—My Lesbian Summer,” finds the teller in gentrifying but very artsy Berlin. Patrick is told by his Sapphic Slavic companion Silvija that “I was the culmination of Irish literature.” His own displacement in Germany leads the pair to hate the arrival of Americans as the harbinger of the end of any trend, and they rob flats for passports to sell to Ukrainians, while Vietnamese, Croat, and Tasmanian denizens flit about the studios. He fails to write his stories down. But someone does, as the collection closes, leaving him and his unsettled other characters forlorn and adrift. Like his first collection, 2007's "There Are Little Kingdoms," these show promise and reward attention. (8-1-12 to Amazon US)


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Lorcan McNamee said...

Just discovered your blog after I went searching for other reviews of Kevin Barry's book - I run a blog myself and have just posted a review....

Very interesting blog you have, I'm kind of in awe of the number of posts you put up. Have you got a staff working on all this? :-) I look forward to reading more...


Fionnchú said...

Thanks, Lorcan. No, just me, no staff! In fact, as I post every other day the past few years, I have a backlog of reviews, so I try to arrange them roughly by theme or topic by now given the amount. Still, I keep adding more. (I admire your ability to produce, too, and in a variety of media.)

I gave a conference talk last autumn on Barry to an Irish Studies audience and few had heard of him, and the few that had generally resisted reading him. His rather foppish, cultivated image appears to put off some. I wonder as one apart from his Irish context how he's perceived by peers and by audiences in his homeland.

I like the judgement your review makes of Barry's strength in his dialogue and the "snapshot" quality of his "fizzing" observations. I wonder if by contrast his debut novel, for its decision to make a more daring move into dense, arch, knowing, allusive prose and stylized filigree, represents a release from the short story's constraints? This tonal and creative distinction I could barely touch on in my talk and my review of "City of Bohane," but it suggests a direction for critique.

I'd add his recent story in the New Yorker "Ox Mountain Death Song" (great title, but hints of borrowing echo) sustains what appears from some of his stories after two collections as his characteristic strength--strong setting and bold plunge into character's p-o-v and what's his weakness--not knowing what to do with the mayhem he's set in motion, and a shift to a pat, even facile, withdrawal. Barry for some may combine the likes of O'Flaherty or Behan with Beckett, but for me, I think he's better when he forces his creations to account for their actions and not flee from them.