Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Kevin Barry's "There Are Little Kingdoms": Book Review

These thirteen short stories convey often the characterization and tone of a contemporary update of Joyce's Dubliners, however scattered across the midwestern and western cities and towns and villages of a jittery, weary, and off-kilter Irish present. Kevin Barry's debut collection shifts the tales across the landscape, from his homeland into first the North-west of England and then across a Greenland ice scape, where this brief volume ends. They stories begin in the coastal hamlets of Ireland facing west, and gradually move about the land before they start to get restless, as their characters, and they edge off the island.

"Atlantic City" tells of a young man's domination over a pool table in a makeshift video arcade and its teenaged, especially female, clientele. "To the Hills" maps a contest between two women for the favors of their fellow hillwalker during a weekend in the countryside. The strikingly odd, haunting dislocation of "See the Tree, How Big It's Grown" deserves mention; I've read this three times and I still marvel at its mysterious protagonist, who must in small town Clonmel start up, all over, running a chip shop after he arrives one day on a sort of a fixed mission he and we cannot fully comprehend.

"Animal Needs" finds another Irish man at wit's end, if due to his own womanizing while his purportedly organic farm awaits an inspector amidst domestic chaos. "Last Days of the Buffalo" as its title shows takes the mid/western elements of its own wandering hero as he walks down by the river around Limerick city, encountering his own showdown with confrontational nomads. "Ideal Homes" looks at the changes as the city lights come ever nearer a small town, and how its raw land opened for yet more tracts brings a couple of flirtatious girls nearer their hopes.

"The Wintersongs" then follows one girl leaving such a place behind for Dublin, and contrasts her decision with the garrulous old woman who talks away the bus ride. "Party at Helen's" looks at such people, up from Carlow or Roscommon, who find themselves drinking and mating and moaning in Galway city's flats, adrift:

"Around them, all was nervousness and elation. Lit up like stars, everybody loved everybody, and there was little shyness about saying so. Hugs and love and tearful embraces. It was all tremendously fluffy. These were children born to unions of a pragmatism so dry it chaffed, they came down from supper tables livid with silence, they came down from marriages where the L-word hadn't darkened the door in decades. There was the feeling of sweat from the nightclub cooling on the small of your back." (83)

"Breakfast Wine" examines a woman, maybe a generation older than these celebrants, who leaves a broken marriage behind for another small town, and another pub. The men who engage her in conversation over a long day of drinks represent the future she brings to their bachelor lives, middle-aged and boxed in. "Burn the Bad Lamp" takes a magical-realist tone, as a genie with a philosophical bent and a penchant for bemusement materializes before a down-and-out secondhand furniture shop. I found this and the next story, "There Are Little Kingdoms," slightly less involving for they moved Barry's strongest quality, his insight into rural and small-town characters in an overlooked part of Ireland, off the stage to make for more whimsical or less realistic situations.

However, the Cumbrian setting of the old rectory facing a reality-TV refurbishment in "Nights at the Gin Palace" has potential even if it like some stories works better for its buildup than its payoff. Barry works best when allowing us to enter his misfit and moping characters, for his plots may halt suddenly (if in rather Joycean style). All the same, seeing Barry outside of his Irish element makes for a useful and wisely chosen contrast with previous entries. Similarly, "The Penguins" about a plane full of characters over the polar regions leaves the reader curious--as one line overheard echoes that in the previous story!

He's a distinctive writer, not always easy to pinpoint in time. These stories take place now but feel sometimes older, without losing their modern or postmodern sensibilities. I look forward to his first novel, told in a more street-wise, polyglot, hardboiled argot forty years on in his imagined Cork-Limerick-Galway urban concoction, "City of Bohane." (I reviewed that on New York Journal of Books when "City" appeared March 6, 2012 in America-- the review above to Amazon US 9-7-11. See also his second collection, "Dark Lies the Island")

No comments: