Kevin Barry is one of the few contemporary fiction writers equally adept at both the long and short form. City of Bohane and the more recent Night Boat to Tangier are superb novels, imaginative and engrossing. The former takes place in a completely fictional world that has never existed, the latter concerns two drug runners and a love interest, plying their trade in utterly familiar parts. (Click on Kevin Barry down the right hand column of the blog for my review of Night Boat to Tangier).
The short stories—this is his third collection—take place mostly in the small towns and country places of old that still remain. Barry’s facility for rendering the denizens of these parts is remarkable—this is no writer from Dublin, but from Sligo. The language he uses is richly humble and utterly evocative. Take one example:
“Living alone in his dead uncle’s cottage, and with the burden lately of wandering thoughts in the night, Seamus Ferris had fallen hard for a Polish girl who worked at a café down in Carrick.”
These are the opening lines of “The Coast of Leitrim”, the superb story which leads off this collection. Take a moment to observe how subtly Barry works: Imagine the same sentence, without “the burden lately of wandering thoughts in the night,” or with some poorer substitute for Seamus’ condition. What a charming and simple way to say someone’s horny.
As here, Barry writes mostly of modern Ireland but the old country places, many transformed by the Celtic Tiger economy. This story concerns, of course, the dance between Seamus and the Polish girl, Katherine. Seamus has never felt as he does here; never thought anything like this woman and this romance could happen to him. She moves in with him. And eventually, he can’t take the thought of losing her, and can’t believe she won’t. A sort of craziness comes over him, suspicion haunts him and destroys his happiness. She leaves, goes back to her place on the other side of town. He avoids her, not just in the café, but shopping for groceries when she won’t be. Eventually he encounters one of her co-workers.
“‘Did you hear at all?’ she said, twisting the knife. ‘Did you hear Katherine went back?’”
I’ll leave it there, for this is not the end, and the rest is a jewel. Much of Barry’s work plies humorous waters, but here, he’s playing for keeps. The closing line, so short and simple and true, is worth the price of the collection. “The Coast of Leitrim” was shortlisted for the prestigious Sunday Times Short Story Award of 2019. Like two other stories in this collection, it was first published in The New Yorker. (And don’t miss the surprise link at the bottom of this review.)
Another story, “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” ran last year in The Irish Times. It’s about an old codger in Limerick, Con McCarthy, who goes around town week after week and year after year asking everyone he passes if they’ve heard who’s just died. He’s that guy some towns have, who’ll talk to anybody about anything, but always has the same starter ready.
“Did you not hear?”
“Did you not hear who’s dead?”
“Who, Con? Who?”
“The way it happened,” . . .
Our reporter—the narrator of this tale—eventually takes to walking late at night himself, and spots Con hunkering over a cup of tea.
“That cup of tea was the saddest thing I ever saw. I sat in a few tables from him and watched carefully. As he sat alone his lips again moved and I have no doubt that it was a litany of names he was reciting, the names of the dead, but just barely, just a whisper enough to hoist those names that they might float above the lamps of the city.”
And when Con died,
“Almost laughing, almost glad, I went along O’Connell Street in the rain with it; I leant in, I whispered; and softly like funeral doves I let my suffering eyes ascend . . .
‘Did you hear at all?’ I said. ‘Did you not hear who’s dead?’”
The title story of the collection, “That Old Country Music,” never before published, tells the story of a young woman, Hannah, who’s four months pregnant and waiting alone in her boyfriend’s van, hidden behind some foliage at a bend in the road in the Curlew Mountains. He’s gone down the hill on a motorcycle with a crowbar to rob the country market, in a caper designed to set them up, through an unlikely chain of relations, in the city of Wakefield in Yorkshire of all places. She’s half his age, round numbers, and he’s the former steady of Hannah’s mother, who found out about their nightly trysts only by waking up from her nightly heat-on at an inopportune time.
The boyfriend is late. Eventually Hannah gets out, looks around, and spots the crowbar in the back of the van. Something’s not right . . . and the sorrowful ending emerges.
And now, courtesy of The New Yorker, have a listen to Kevin Barry himself reading “The Coast of Leitrim”:
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .