Small Town Stasis by the Irish Coastline
(Black Cat, 2015)
“My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.” begins the narrator Jimmy in the opening story “The Clancy Kid” from Colin Barret’s debut collection. The town is Glanbeigh, an imaginary desolate Irish setting that acts as the backdrop to all 7 pieces in the book. Set just off the Atlantic shore around the time when the Celtic Tiger fell into recession, the sultry bleak setting that follows with its “gnarled Jawbone of [a] Coastline” and the “gull-infested promontories,” gives us a window into the confined space in which these stories transpire. It mirrors the general state of the economy and the alienation and frustrations surrounding the small town inhabitants that are the disillusioned subjects of Barrett’s fiction.
First published in Ireland in 2013 by Stinging Fly press, Young Skins has won numerous awards: The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, The Guardian’s First Book Award, and The Frank O’Conner International Short Story Award. Barrett’s stories suggest urgent appeal. Each one moves seductively between a variety of registers and moods, from ugly, awkward sentences to beautiful, lyrical ones. His prose is precise down to the most idiosyncratic descriptions. His style is a sort of hyperrealism, where each detail is enhanced and deployed to fit a larger structure. “Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.” The doleful cows of this passage add to the depiction of the setting and are suggestive of the monotony and endless stasis of the town dwellers. Barrett even lets them reappear in another story, which turns them into these significantly absurd creatures. “[…] Each cow bore the same expression; the huge jaws mechanically working a wad of cud back and forth, the dark eyes registering […] with the same steady, sullen incuriosity.” The rigorous attention that is given to these amplified realist elements is reminiscent of short stories from the ’70s and ’80’s, of writers like Denis Johnson or Barry Hannah.
Through the course of the collection there is a recurrent theme of bodily alienation—in youth, in death, and in the slow passing of time. These subject lines are brought together in the allusive title, but also find their way into the metaphorical and linguistic landscape of the stories. There is the image of disappearance and death in the last piece “Kindly Forget my Existence,” where the ending zooms in on an unclaimed sunken raincoat visceral like the texture of skin without its body. Or there is the large disfigured character of Bat, whose devastating dream sequence in “Stand your own Skin,” is a nightmarish metaphor of self-loathing and self-entrapment:
Bat is Bat, but in a different body […] wasted and bowlegged, older perhaps, though perhaps not. Certainly frailer, flimsier, and he, dream-Bat, is walking around what must be this town. It’s just a street, an undistinguished strip of concrete paving flanked by generic buildings—and he’s wearing a mustard-seed suit… The suit does not fit. It’s several sizes too large and the superfluous material billows and flumps comically around his limbs. And in the dream all Bat is doing is walking around and crying and crying and somewhere to the back of him—he can’t precisely tell—his old dear’s voice pursues him like a vindictive raincloud, saying change the medication, change the medication…
Because of an unjust injury that happened years ago, a boot to the face by the ill-tempered townie Tansey, Bat is prone to headaches and nausea. Also he lives with his nagging old mother and has a recurrent dream of the mustard seed suit that in its big “Billowy” and “Flumpsy” texture resembles that of an alien body, too big and clumsy for the self trapped inside.
Many of Barrett’s characters are young or middle-aged men like Bat—aimless drifters, drunks, bouncers and criminals. Tough, emotionally callous types who all in some way or another turn out to be misfits and damaged souls. Most of these stories are about slow and sullen existences that happen on the periphery of life. As Jimmy says, “there is the comfort of routine but also the mystery of that routine’s persistence.”
One of the most interesting characters in the collection is Tug, a heavyset guy, who is best friends with Jimmy, and known for his fits, tantrums and unpredictable outbursts. “Tug is odd because he was bred in a family warped by grief […] Tug’s real name is Brendan, but he was the second Cuniffe boy named Brendan. The mother had a firstborn a couple of years before Tug, but that sliver of a child died at thirteen months old.” These are the kinds of swift portraiture and quick glances that Barrett gives us. He drops his readers momentarily into each individual life, not at any pivotal point, but rather, it seems, in order for us to witness the kernel of each self through their habitual and mundane surroundings. Indeed the classic components of the short story—escalation and fall, a life-altering event, etc.—are luminously underplayed in many of these pieces. What animates them is their attention to language, form, and detail, the way perspectives can suddenly change and metaphors become important signifiers. This is what elevates these stories and calls for reading and rereading. One can only hope that Barrett will continue to be daring in his formal choices, and to work his subject matter into the materiality of the language sentence to sentence.
Perhaps next time one could wish for more fully-fledged female characters who are not just mothers or lovers or subjects that add to the sentimental swerve of male characters. That said, this is a surprisingly controlled and inventive debut. Barrett writes out the gloomy setting of a regional Ireland with great sensitivity and convincing stride.
MAYA SOLOVEJ lives and works in NYC. She received her BA in comparative literature from the University of Copenhagen in 2014 and has written book reviews for Atlas Magazine, a Danish publication.