Jonathan Cape, £14.99. pp. 192. Stinging Fly Press, €12.99. 172 pp.
My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.
‘The Clancy Kid’
So begins Colin Barrett’s debut collection Young Skins, ushering us directly into this author’s perfectly realised universe. If Alice Munro is inextricably linked with Huron County and John Cheever with the Westchester Suburbs of New York, then it doesn’t seem rash at all to assume that Barrett will soon be likewise linked and feted for his 21st Century visions of the West of Ireland. Indeed, perhaps this one, relatively slim volume is all it will take. That’s how good Young Skins is.
Everything about the Barrett aesthetic is contained within those opening lines. The authorial voice: poetic and perceptive but sounding at times as though it is almost dazed by boredom and inanity. The subject matter: being young in semi-rural, post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. It is a landscape in which hedonism and violence takes centre stage and as such it offers a bleak but unfailingly honest vision of Ireland in the economic downturn. Impressively it also understands the ‘Zen bovine’ pace of semi-rural Irish life in a way that that more than adequately draws comparison with O’Connor or Kavanagh. Again, that’s just how good Young Skins is.
The books centrepiece is the novella-length ‘Calm with Horses’, a Shaun Meadows-like tale of dole and crime-life but one that, in terms of artistic sensibility feels closer in spirit to the rich traditions of Irish poetry. It is almost as though Seamus Heaney had sat down and tried to write Trainspotting in the manner of his own history-conscious, landscape-conscious vision. And this, in essence, is the unique quality of the Barrett aesthetic: his subject matter may be grim and in some cases, bereft of hope, but the authorial voice is a deeply sensitive one, frequently given to passages of poetic description. Try for instance, this section, where the former boxer, Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (‘if you cross me [his friend Dympna is fond of saying] I’ll get the ‘Arm’ on you’), agrees to try riding one of the horses at the stables that his autistic son loves to visit:
Its stride opened out. Arm bounced and bounced, skewing from side to side in the saddle… The reins were a loop of flimsy leather flickering along the side of the horse’s straining head. Nephin Mountain hiccupped violently up and down in the air in front of him.
Arm pressed his face into the long swinging neck. He could smell the velvet mustiness of the creature’s hide, the sweetness of the pulverised grass and black earth as it cut up under the thrumming hooves. ‘Stop,’ Arm was moaning, ‘stop, stop, stop.’
He thought of Fannigan, pale as any apparition, a body riding the current to sea.
Arm is at heart a sensitive man who wants to turn his back on violence and spend more time with his estranged girlfriend and their autistic son. However, he has found himself almost inadvertently, almost inescapably, adding murder [of the aforementioned Fannigan] to his long list of other crimes.
Barrett also handles these descriptions of murder and violence particularly well. What he makes Arm – who is ordinarily always thinking – do, is simply switch off whenever he has to do anything violent. He has him simply stop thinking altogether, like he has briefly become an automaton. It is a very frightening and effective literary device:
‘Douglas,’ he [Fannigan] said it again. ‘Listen. Listen. When I was a boy-’
It was right there, half sunk in the mud. Arm snugged his hand around it, a smooth, weighty oval, and aimed for Fannigan’s temple, where a delta of veinwork tremulously pulsed.
If there is one story that comes slightly unstuck, then it is ‘Diamonds’, which perhaps strays a little too far into Raymond Carver territory. The story of a recovering alcoholic who is tempted back to drink by a woman that he meets at an AA meeting, it comes complete with a classically Carver-esque recurring metaphor of a diamond mine so deep that you could fit the narrator’s home town into it.
This, however, is not to say that Barrett does not do the Carver thing very well and a good deal better than most other writers (and let’s face it there are a lot of people writing bad Raymond Carver stories at the moment), but whereas all the other stories here feel utterly unique to Barrett, there is a sense that you can still see elements of the architectural structure of ‘Diamonds’ poking out at various junctures. If anything it feels like an earlier piece than the others collected here, one perhaps written before the sum of Barrett’s influences had been subsumed into the something-utterly-unique that they are throughout the rest of the collection. Having said all this, however, ‘Diamonds’ does contain at least one moment of sublime poetry. The woman from AA – who has just given the dry narrator a whiskey – realises that she had probably used to watch him play Gaelic Football when they were both at school:
‘I had best friends I saw every day for five straight years I wouldn’t know now if I passed them in the street,’ I [the narrator] said. ‘So I won’t be offended if you don’t remember me.’
‘But you were there and I was there,’ she said. ‘In our young skins, though we didn’t know each other from Adam. Strange to think of it.’
The phrase ‘young skins’ has been mentioned before in the book but in the colloquial sense used to refer to tough, quite possibly violent young men. Here it takes on a greater resonance, alluding as it does to the innocence of youth and to the sad swiftness of its passing.
Young Skins, an Irish short story collection that is unafraid to use a quote from Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ as the title of its closing piece (‘Kindly Forget My Existence’), is clearly the work of a bold author in possession of a remarkable talent. It is a fearless work that in its own dazed way is as much of a state of the nation address as Dubliners was back in 1914.