Dark Lies the Island
(Graywolf Press, 2013)
Maybe you know about Kevin Barry because you were one of the lucky ones who read his City of Bohane (Graywolf, 2012), either before or after it was shortlisted for the Costa and then when it won the IMPAC Dublin Literary award. Maybe you found him, as I did, by reading his story “Fjord of Killary” when it was published in early 2010 in the New Yorker—remember, that weird story with the steadily insistent writing about the guy who bought a hotel and ran a bar and, in the story, there’s a flood coming? Remember? Maybe you caught the fact that his Dark Lies the Island, the collection of stories under review here, was awarded the Sunday Times Short Story Award, which is a big deal for any number of reasons, not least of which is that it’s the world’s richest award for short fiction. Maybe you haven’t heard about Kevin Barry yet at all, in which case you’re among the luckier readers alive.
Here’s some evidence: “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 face 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 Nass Road in Dublin.” Obvious and only possible response: hot damn That awareness—generous but slightly cutting, hip but shaky—and understanding! That, good reader, is the start of “Wifey Redux,” the second story in Dark Lies the Island, and trust me when I say the story’s writing continues—masterfully, so easy to read it’s the literary equivalent of Doritos—just as strong through its 19 pages.
But maybe that doesn’t capture you, not quite. Maybe you’d like something more colorful—Barry is, after all, Irish. “‘Here’s another one I got to weasel you out of,’ he said. ‘And me without the arse o’ me fucking’ kecks, ‘ay?’” That’s near the front of “The Girls and the Dogs,” a story which, like most of the stories in the collection, features a man trying to move into or away from something—in this case, sort of both. That’s overly general, I know, but it might be mildly useful to attempt an articulation of exactly what’s going on in Barry’s stories here.
Take, maybe, “Across the Rooftops,” the collection’s opener. Here’s the start: “Early one summer morning, I sat with her among the rooftops of the city and the fat white clouds moved slowly above us—it was so early as to be a city lost in sleep, and she was really very near to me. My want for her was intense and long-standing—three months, at least; an eternity—and I was close enough to see the opaque down of her bare arms, each strand curling like a comma at its tip, and the tiny scratched flecks of dark against the hazel of her eyes. She was just a stretch and a clasp away. The city beneath was lost to the peaceful empty moments of 5 a.m.—it might be a perfect Saturday of July. All I had to do was make the move.” That last line, with emphasis, might be something of a animating idea for the collection: these are stories of precipice and intent, stories in which men (by and large) face some decision or movement, or a decision’s or movement’s aftermath. Almost regardless of the circumstances, these are men who are—often hilariously, usually with a dash of sorrow as well—not quite boorishly flummoxed or anything, but are surprised mightily by what befalls them. “Wifey Redux,” that story quoted earlier? It’s about a dad trying to protect his daughter from, basically, the interest of a boy who’s taken note of her budding sexiness, which budding sexiness the dad recognizes fiercely as being exactly like his wife’s, and but even as he recognizes that, and acknoweldges that’s just the way of the world, the knowledge doesn’t prevent him from handcuffs at story’s end.
Dark Lies the Island is a strange and phenomenal read for the moves these men make, for the ways in which they try to make their move, or try to deal with the results their moves have led to, and the real trick—the reason Barry’s won such acclaim for this and his other books (his first collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, was released simultaneously here in the states along with Dark Lies the Island, both from Graywolf)—of these stories has to do, somehow, with expectation and result. Even knowing—from the first paragraph!—how things will end, the reader somehow can’t quite help being blown a bit back, amazed at the route to the cliff’s drop-off. This is the best fiction.