On the bookshelf
By Colin Barrett
Grove Press: 224 pages, $27
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Many versions of modern Ireland come to us via literature, from the mystical chaos of Edna O’Brien to the dark hinterlands of John Banville, the complex cacophony of Anna Burns and the humor of Roddy Doyle – not to mention the feminist comedy of Marian Keyes and the Afro-Irish experience of Nick Makoha. Colm Tobin. Anne Enright. Colum McCann. Eimear McBride. I could go on. I will not continue. (Apologies to that great Irishman, Samuel Beckett.)
Makoha and Burns are among a number of young Irish novelists who have attracted a new wave of readers. Aside from Sally Rooney, who became such a worldwide phenomenon that she wrote a novel about it, there’s Naoise Dolan, Mike McCormack, Claire Keegan. And there’s Colin Barrett, who owns the short story estate. Barrett’s 2015 collection, “Young Skins”, is set entirely in the town of Glenbeigh, County Kerry – “nowhere you’ve been, but you know its ilk”. His debut won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the National Book Foundation’s ‘5 Under 35’ accolade, captivating readers and critics with a startling realism about the young working class.
Barrett’s new collection, “Homesickness,” expands its age and geography range, with characters well over 30 (some even elderly) and settings in County Mayo, County Sligo, even all the way to Toronto (in the penultimate story, “The Low, Shimmering Black Drone”). Yet its story count remains low – just eight here, compared to seven in “Young Skins.”
Maybe it’s best this way because Barrett’s stories have so many layers that they’re worth re-reading more or less right away. “A Shooting in Rathreedane” carries the tone and subject matter of everyone’s favorite murder shows (think “Dublin Murder Squad” and “Harry’s Game”) with moments so hilarious you won’t even know the sound what you hear is you, laughing out loud. sergeant. Jackie Noonan “outside Ballina Garda Station” meets a witness to a crime and asks his name: “I don’t have a say, but all the c— who know me call me Bubbles.”
Turn the page and you meet Pell Munnelly, a teenager whose 25-year-old brother, Nick, works long hours to support his siblings after “people have died of cancer in consecutive summers, the mum three years ago, the dad the penultimate year. Their younger brother Gerry spends most of his time on a PlayStation game called “Blood Dusk 2”. As violent as the first person shooter was, “What was worth it, what brought Gerry back, was the game map. The map was beautiful, two hundred square miles of North American border simulated and fully interactive 19th century. It’s hard to imagine a simpler way to enlighten a child lost in grief.
The title of the story “The Alps”, meanwhile, does not refer to topography but to three brothers in early middle age. Eustace, Rory and Bimbo travel everywhere together, their family tree “a stump mutilated by cancer and coronaries” – a line they seem determined to carry on by eating takeout, drinking “vats of Guinness every weekend and throwing himself into various scrapes. “The Alps were built to punish, they weren’t built to last.”
When the trio encounter a veritable madness at the local soccer club — in the form of a young man wielding a Japanese ceremonial sword — reader antennae sense a fight coming. We fear for the other patrons, including old Peader Ginty (“at this stage of things, a big watery bag of organs in jeopardy”) and his flint daughter Moira, whose response to Bimbo saying he has no nothing to complain about is: “People who nothing to complain about lack character.” Hold back your laughter, please, because the expected fight is going to unexpected places.
Some prose writers, especially those who are skilled with plot, can keep your attention even when they write unnecessary sentences. This is not the case with Barrett. Every line counts; if you skim over his work, you may understand it, but you will deprive yourself of both pleasure and surprise.
In “Whoever Is There, Come on Through”, a woman named Eileen picks up her childhood friend Murt from a mental hospital and takes him to McDonald’s. Her order includes two Happy Meals. “’Always enjoy the tension,’ he said. ‘Waiting to see if they will ask if there is really a child with you.’ said, “You care for him, Eileen…but you have no pity for him. He is who he is. He’s not like all of us. You have to accept that. You have to have a little pity.
This drop of wisdom in the midst of everyday life signals Barrett’s unique genius more than any accolade under 35. There are four other electric stories in “Homesickness” not mentioned here; Read the. If Barrett ever chooses to write a novel, it will be something to see, perhaps like the parts of the Irish coast that tourists ignore. Forget your Cliffs of Moher and take a detour to those of Slieve League; gasp at the top of the climb and brave the natural glory unspoiled by visitor centers or roving herds in thin plastic ponchos.
It’s the experience of reading Barrett’s fiction – the hard truth stripped of familiar panels or memories. He writes what he knows, but he also writes to find out what he doesn’t know, a simple but crucial distinction that you can instinctively feel no matter how many of his countrymen you have already read.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.