Kevin Barry: There Are Little Kingdoms

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.


  1. I’ll have some of that. Thanks, John. To be honest, I would’ve been sold at:

    ‘…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?’’

  2. This has a whiff of Flann O’Brien to me – there’s no higher praise I can think of.

    I followed your link and am heartened to see uniformly positive (and non-inane) Amazon reviews for this…could all be his mates, of course.

    1. ‘This has a whiff of Flann O’Brien to me – there’s no higher praise I can think of.’

      Me either! And it does have a whiff of the great Myles Na Gopaleen (spelling?)…

      1. I think there’s an oddly placed ‘c/g’ combo in there somewhere, Lee. Myles na gCopaleen, though his real real name was Brian O’Nolan. Those crazy Irish! (Or, to adopt Linda’s formulation, Ires.)

        That reminds me that I must read The Dalkey Archive, which I’ve avoided before now, assured that it’s not a patch on his other novels.

  3. Could be, leroyhunter, though only one of the reviewers suffers from the dreaded “one-hit wonder” syndrome, where they haven’t reviewed anything else: always cause for suspicion.

    Flann O’Brien is an interesting comparison, and while Barry has the comic gift, no question, I don’t think he shares O’Brien’s ambition in literary terms (thinking of At Swim-Two-Birds for example). Of course the novel may prove me wrong on that.

  4. Sounds wonderful. You know all Irish writers are given a kind of handicap in prize committees because they write so well? Or so I’ve been told…

  5. Ha, that makes sense, Amanda! What is it about the Irish, like the Jewish, which seems to have them so richly represented in English literature? A history of oral storytelling? I’m sure someone more qualified than I has looked into this…

  6. We usually say the Jews, not the Jewish, but I’ll let that pass.

    In answer to your question, I’d say: the Old Testament. Our religion is based on a book and a story. Someone said to me once that if you take Jesus out of the New Testament and Mohammed out of the Koran you don’t have a lot left but if you take God out of the Old Testament you still have the story of a people and a place.

    In addition, Jews have had a greater attachment to time, than to space. The notion of the Diaspora is that you have to bring memory with you, there are no external clues in the landscape. As George Steiner said, ‘The text is home, each commentary a return.’ And for David Grossman, ‘Jews have always been a big story.’

    Then we have the question of the Jewish American writer, who freed of the repression of their native lands, were able for the first time to be anything they wished. And in a land of immigration, Jews, par excellence, already knew what it was from long experience, to be immigrants

    And Jews have always had the the necessary ability a writer needs to be an outside in a society observing it . . .

    I could go on for hours. She said, having completely changed the subject.

  7. Nice review, John, you’ve reminded me that I must review this one for my own blog. I adored it, I think there’s an element of modern Ireland in these stories that no-one else has captured quite as successfully.

    Also, I haven’t forgotten that I owe you a Greg Baxter review after my competition prize. I’ll be on it shortly.

  8. Don’t be bloody stupid, Evelyn. How would I make up my contractual 1,000 words with that sort of nonsense?

    Andrew, I look forward to your Barry and Baxter reviews. To work!

    Linda, so how does the Jew-y experience (and a very interesting analysis it was too) compare with the Irish one? A people with a language forced upon them making better use of it than their oppressors? The Irish diaspora effect?

    1. Repeat the words feckin’ deadly 500 times…or………use lots and lots of ands, its (it’s even), thes buts. Actually is the word antidisestablishmentarianism worth more in a contract than the word thick?

  9. In my view, it’s something in the Irish language itself. When the Ires (as I’ll now call them) start writing English, it’s a very different English from the language spoken on my side of the Irish Sea. Of course the Jews also had Yiddish, and a very expressive, though considerably less poetic, language it was too.

    1. Laughing at this comment – it reminds me of Tommy Tiernan’s theory on why the Irish curse so much. Apparently it is because we are not using our native tongue hence we have to insert f*** to express the English word we can’t find in our ancestral database!

  10. And then you being from Liverpool, would presumably have been surrounded by Irish influences as well as your familial Jewish ones. So you see, you had a natural head start as a writer. Tch.

  11. Yes indeedy. We used to sing this:

    Did you ever go across the sea to Ireland
    And maybe at the closing of your day
    You can sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh
    And see the sun go down on Galway Bay

    Just to hear again the ripple of the troutstream
    The women in the meadows making hay
    Just to sit around the turf in the cabin
    And watch the barefoot gossoons at their play.

    Oh the breezes blowing o’er the seas from Ireland
    Are perfumed by the heather as the blow
    And the women in the uplands digging praties
    Speak a language that the stranger do not know.

    Oh the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways
    They scorned us just for being what they are
    But they might as well go chasing after moonbeams
    Or light a penny candle from a star.

    And if there’s going to be a life hereafter
    And somehow I am sure there’s going to be
    I would ask my God to let me make my heaven
    In that dear land across the Irish Sea.

    And this (alternating verses in English and Yiddish):

    Tell me where shall I go
    There’s no place I can see
    Where to go where to go
    Every door is closed to me
    To the left, to the right
    It’s the same in every land
    There is nowhere to go
    And it’s me who should know
    Won’t you please understand

    Now I know where to go
    Where my folks proudly stand
    Where to go where to go
    To that precious Promised Land
    No more left more right
    Lift your head and see the light
    I am proud can’t you see
    For at last I am free
    No more wandering for me

    Not a dry eye in the house.

  12. John – 

    i take some exception with your first line – mainstreamers gave up on publishing short story collections for first timers back in VS Naipaul’s day (and i *can* blame them). i know i’m again advising something else to read instead of commenting directly on your posts – why mess? – but i can’t resist: ‘Natasha and Other Stories’ by David Bezmozgis. absolutely, far and away, one of the best pieces of fiction i’ve ever read. it helps i’m from Toronto, like the author, but it’s a deserved international hit.

    not that you don’t have enough to read . . .

  13. Thanks for the recommendation, jay. Isn’t Bezmozgis one of the New Yorker’s 40 under 40? I’ve ordered a copy of Natasha, and will report back in 2017 or thereabouts.

  14. He is, John, and I second Jay’s recommendation. The collection was on my personal Giller shortlist in 2004, but got overlooked. And Alice Munro won. Just to show the short story collection is still being published in some corners of the world (two debut writers, Alexander MacLeod and Sarah Selecky, are on this year’s shortlist). And, yes, that MacLeod is the son of Alistair, no mean short story writer himself.

  15. On the subject of mainstream publishers giving up on debut short story collections, have you read ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ by Daniyal Mueenuddin? (Random House India) It is the best short story collection I have ever read … (it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize last year but sadly didn’t win)

  16. Hi Maegan, thanks for visiting my blog. I have read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and it does indeed contradict my point that mainstream publishers have given up on debut collections of stories entirely. (It’s published by Bloomsbury in the UK.) I thought it was a wonderful book (though I liked the early stories more than the later ones), and it is a source of shame to me that I never got around to reviewing it here. It was also a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

  17. Oh really? Had no idea Bloomsbury published it in the UK .. I wonder why not Random House UK? I wrote a very brief ‘review’ what feels like an age ago on an old blog, and went to a great talk Daniyal gave in Delhi in April.

    Another strong short story collection (not being difficult – honest!) is Mridula Koshy’s ‘If It is Sweet’ – Tranquebar Press here in India, but not sure at home … have you read?

  18. “Kevin Barry’s stories: it’s George Saunders meets The League of Gentlemen! In Ireland!” My but that’s not an appealing prospect. That probably says more about my mixed views on League than anything else though.

    “Boys with pesticide eyes” is a lovely line (very William Gibson actually, oddly enough), but the dark angels really should head home. They render the whole sentence meaningless, showy. What does it mean to say they scream the names of dark angels? Does it mean anything or did it just sound writerly? Oddly that bits like Gibson too, but less successful Gibson.

    Nothing else sounds Gibsonian by the way, just that particular line.

    The kiwi fruit bit doesn’t work that well for me either, since again it sounds great but I have no idea what it means.

    But then the Nights at the Gin Palace quote is great. So is that long section with Jim Flaherty.

    Hm. Interesting review. I suspect I’ll wait to see what else he does.

  19. Just finished this John, thanks for pointing me to it. There are some lovely pieces here, and you’ve nailed it in highlighting his voice, which is superb: comic, yet with a sad and sometimes bitter tang. There are quite a few of the “dark angels” type infelicities and I found some of the ways he closes stories a little glib or showy. But when he hits a groove it’s great stuff altogether:

    Foley went to the supervisor.
    “Come here I want you,” he said.
    “I want to get one thing clear,” he said. “Just for my own information.”
    “Are we a petrol station? Or are we an amusement arcade?”
    “I must say your tone is slightly…”
    “Don’t mind tone. Are we a supermarket?”
    “Now listen…”
    “What the fuck are we?” cried Foley. “Are we Crazy Prices?”
    “There’s no need for your tone, I find it…”
    “I’ll give you tone!”

    Incidentally, I see Keith Ridgway was somewhat less then taken with City of Bohane:

  20. Thanks leroy. Yes, I saw Ridgway’s review. I read a very small amount of City of Bohane (about twenty pages) and set it aside as I had the feeling it was going to carry on in very much the same (beautifully done, highly entertaining) fashion for 300 pages, and at the time I wanted to read something that didn’t do that. Ridgway’s review seemed to confirm my suspicions. I might go back to it – Barry can certainly write, but it may be that his stories are the best of him (Cape have bought a collection of stories as well as the novel, so we will see more).

  21. It’s interesting that Ridgeway review, particularly the suggestion that there’s something possibly slightly unpleasantly stereotypical in some of the group characterisations.

    It’s a good review though, because although in many ways negative it left me thinking it was a book I might still enjoy. I do think that’s important: to give the reader enough feel that they can form a different view to that of the reviewer.

  22. It is a good review, Max, almost frighteningly clear-headed and lucid while remaining intelligent and balanced. Would that I could do them like that.

  23. Well if Barry has more stories on the way, I’ll be in the queue when they’re published. Not sure about the novel, I might have to have a flick through it and decide.

    The other thing the very good Ridgway review did is remind me of your championing of him himself, John. He’s on the wishlist.

  24. Haven’t read the stories yet, but City of Bohane is brilliant novel. One of most entertaining I’ve read in years, in both plot and language. Following passage captures his voice well: “The atmosphere generated was riverine and as Wolfie walked the wharf there was no small amount of poetry mingled with violent intention. Was the prospect of violence that stirred the poetics in Wolfie.”

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