This review was originally published on the PRISM international blog.
The Irish author Kevin Barry recently appeared onto the screen of my literary radar, and then I wondered how it was possible that I’d never taken notice of him before. From one day to the next, I went from having never heard his name to thinking of him as a literary superstar. My hunch is that this was true of most readers when Barry won the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin award (as far as I know, the most generous prize awarded for a single book) for his first novel, City of Bohane. By the time he won the prize, he’d already published a new collection of short fiction, Dark Lies the Isle, to critical acclaim.
I’m a fan of Irish short stories and I was pretty excited to discover a new contemporary Irish writer who seemed to put a lot of emphasis on his craft (Barry says he finishes all of the stories he begins to write, but only ends up being happy enough with one or two in ten of them to send them out—here’s a writer who’s not afraid to hold back what isn’t up to his own standards). Instead of going for the two later books, however, I got my hands on Barry’s first collection of stories, There Are Little Kingdoms, which has now been reissued but was originally published by a small Dublin press and garnered some attention when it won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature back in 2007.
What characterizes Barry’s fiction most is his phenomenal play with language. He has a beautiful way with words, and tells his stories with a dark veneer of sheer, unequivocal lyricism. He’s especially good at describing setting, which is often small Irish towns. “Atlantic City,” the collection’s first story, opens with a paragraph dripping with the hazy uncomfortableness of hot summer weather:
A July evening, after a tar-melter of a day, and Broad Street was quiet and muffled with summer, the entire town was dozy with summer, and even as the summer peaked so it began to fade. Dogs didn’t know what had hit them. They walked around with their tongues hanging out and their eyes rolling and they lapped forlornly at the drains. The old were anxious, too: they twitched the curtains to look up the hills, and flapped themselves with copies of the RTE Guide to make a parlour breeze. Later, after dark, the bars would be giddy with lager drinkers, but it was early yet, and Broad Street was bare and peaceful in the blue evening.
Drinking makes up a large part of Barry’s collection, and while the author is mostly interested in familiar kinds of people—young boys and girls drinking, old couples exploring other partners, a couple of middle-aged women trying to sleep with a good-looking hiker, a young woman running away from home on a train, a couple of small-town alcoholics eager for the company of a third drinking partner—he isn’t afraid to inject a little bit of added strangeness to his stories. In “Last Days of the Buffalo,” a peaceful giant can tell when a person was born and how they’ll die with the touch of a hand; in “See the Tree, How Big it’s Grown,” a man wakes up on a bus with six hundred euro in cash and no memory of who he is, and yet enters a tired life as chip-shop owner with ease; in “Burn the Bad Lamp,” the owner of an antique shop summons a genie by rubbing a lamp and asks for a good singing voice, a wish that cannot be granted immediately. In another context, some of these might be labelled as magical realism. Experimentation with form and voice also leads Barry into unusual territory that feels vibrant and new, as in “Party at Helen’s,” where the reader gets a glimpse, in turn, inside the heads of all the guests at a Saturday night party in Galway, like a kind of narrative carousel.
There is also a lot of tenderness and humour in these brave stories. The last one in the collection, “Penguins,” is told from the point of view of a flight attendant during an emergency landing on a Greenland ice field. The recognizable hilarity of “isthisthechicken isthisthechicken isthisthe… chicken???” and “mudwater coffee” make way to even greater (although less recognizable) hilarity when it turns out the “official strategy in these situations” is for the passengers to huddle around in concentric circles and shuffle a little from side to side to stay warm—like penguins. With no food, the attendants pass out mini bottles of alcohol, and everyone is drunk by the time the rescue snowmobiles arrive. Two of the passengers are dead by then, which is, apparently, “an amazing result.”
The truly amazing result in Barry’s early stories is his ability to summon these little kingdoms in just a few pages, and make them ring with their own energy, vibrant and unique. Kevin Barry is a fine writer whose ascension you don’t want to miss.