Mainstream publishers have more or less given up on debut collections of stories, and who can blame them? I bought this book from the website of the publisher, The Stinging Fly, a small Irish press, but didn’t get around to cracking it open until I heard that Kevin Barry has a novel out next year (picked up by one of those teasing mainstream publishers). Better get in on the ground floor then, I thought, before googling the title of this book and realising that I am bringing up the rear already.
There Are Little Kingdoms won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in its year of publication, 2007. The Rooney is not widely known outside Ireland but it has a good pedigree: Claire Keegan, Keith Ridgway, Phillip Ó Ceallaigh are all recent recipients. But why rely on literary awards when I can sum the book up in a lazy journalist style? Kevin Barry’s stories: it’s George Saunders meets The League of Gentlemen! In Ireland!
Barry is old enough – 38 when this collection was published – that his debut comes with its voice fully developed. And the voice is a cracker. “There are crisis levels of debt. There is alcoholism and garrulousness and depressive ideation,” he writes of an unnamed town in rural Ireland. “There is the great disease of familiarity.”
These are long, bruised days on the midland plain. People wake in the night and shout out names they have never known. There is an amount of lead insult among the young. The river is technically dead since 2002. There is addiction to prescription medication and catalogue shopping. Boys with pesticide eyes pull handbrake turns at four in the morning and scream the names of dark angels. Everybody is fucking everybody else.
(OK, so he could lose the ‘dark angels’ bit.) That comes from the best story in the collection (with the worst title), ‘Animal Needs’. It reports the horrors that descend upon John Martin, a farmer who has found himself drawn, reluctantly but not without curiosity, into sexual infidelity. “You imagine the whole wife-swapping business would take four decisions but really it only takes three.” The swinging, though, is the least of his problems, as a husband he is cuckolding comes home unexpectedly. The dialogue twines comedy and threat.
‘And tell me, by the way, while we’re at it,’ and Jim Flaherty takes a dainty step back, a little dancing step back, and he blocks off the door with an arm to the jamb, an arm with the reach of a mid-sized crane. ‘Tell me John. Where you parked?’
‘Oh, I ah … I left it down by L_______ Road. Actually.’
‘I see. You decided to park twelve hundred yards away. At a spot that is hidden from the open view. I see.’
‘Listen, anyway, folks, I’ll knock away out of it. I’ll see ye.’
‘I’ll tell you now, John, we can do it easy or we can do it hard. Which way would you want it to be?’
‘Good man. So how long have you been sleeping with my wife?’
‘Jimmy!’ she cries. ‘This is crazy talk!’
‘Noreen, love, would you ever go upstairs and lock yourself into the bathroom and put the key out under the door for me? I’ll deal with you in due course. John, you might take a seat by the fireplace, please.’
There is a conflict here because the characters are created meticulously but larger than life; recognisable but cartoonish. This conflict enhances the force of the story: the effect has the coolness of satire but the wrench of emotion (I told you he had the George Saunders thing going on). There is a fictional friction. Also, Barry is a master of what Tobias Wolff (no slouch at the story form himself) calls “a gesture that tells you something particular:” here it’s the “little dancing step” that the dangerous Jim Flaherty takes as he prepares to “deal with” his wife’s adultery.
I said ‘Animal Needs’ is the best story because it packs so much into its 18 pages; there are hidden things that reveal themselves only gradually. Elsewhere Barry is more linear, and directly comical, as in ‘Burn the Bad Lamp’, where a man running a business on its knees encounters a fairytale genie. The genie says things like, ‘How’d you like this for a caper?’ Clearly this sort of distinctive style will not appeal to everyone, and the quips he despatches – sort of drive-by descriptions – might madden some with what can look like glibness. “She came from Tipperary and was the shape and texture of a kiwi fruit,” he says of one character. Another “had a father with a head like a boiled ham” (and there the paragraph ends, to the sound of a cabaret sting in the reader’s head). I found I had a fair tolerance for them, though this may be because the stories are so short (and I do wonder about the extrapolation of Barry’s style to novel length).
She went first to art school in Leeds, where she discovered no aptitude for creativity, but fell happily pregnant by her free-drawing instructor, Kim, who was kind enough to driver her to Halifax for the abortion, and with a Yorkshireman’s swarthy panache offered to go halves on the cost. (‘Nights at the Gin Palace’)
Despite (because of) the comedy, the deepest current in Barry’s stories is one of sadness. The people are inadequate, frustrated, “prey to odd shudders in the small hours,” pursuing stunted lives. This is William Trevor territory; Barry is the gremlin Trevor keeps under that hat of his. In fact the last story in the collection, ‘The Penguins’, is the earliest in date of writing, and it stands apart from them – not set in Ireland, for one, seeming governed more by its plot than its characters. What it shows is how Barry has found his voice since then, and if I seem to be going on about voice a lot in this review, then it’s because it’s a central part of the writer’s arsenal, and a hot property indeed if that voice is as charming, funny and assured as Kevin Barry’s is. Onward, then, to the City of Bohane.