The Short Version: Kevin Barry’s debut collection of short stories – featuring more tales of strange folk, drinking folk, family folk, and that uniquely Irish magic.
The Review: It’s always strange to step back through an author’s canon in reverse. It is only natural that an author’s style will mature – for better or for worse, I’ll admit. Chuck Palahniuk’s later novels are, we all know, not as good as his earlier ones – but authors like Kevin Barry and Karen Russell have clearly grown and developed from practicing their art. I loved City of Bohane (like, loved) and Dark Lies the Island is rather exceptional as well – so then is it any surprise that I enjoyed these tales, too?
And is it any surprise that I found them, comparatively, a little lacking? No. I shouldn’t think either of these points would come as a shock, not really. For while the signs of Mr. Barry’s greatness are here, there are also clear examples of the writer just beginning to hone his blade.
Don’t get me wrong, there are stories that pack as much punch as those of Mr. Barry’s more recent collection. “Breakfast Wine” is a perfect tale and well-told. The stylistic adventure of “Party at Helen’s” shows daring and uncommon raw talent. And “Atlantic City” captures the rawness of life in a way that foreshadows the young men & women of Bohane. There’s even a bit of the hint of the strange here – “Last Days of the Buffalo”, I think it is, features a main character who clearly has a bit of the gift to him, in an unsettling way. Same with the crazy old lady in “The Wintersongs”. We see the elements of storytelling that are both as-old-as-time and so refreshingly new in Barry’s writing coming into bloom here.
But, for the first time, there are a few dud moments. The last few stories feel somewhat ‘eh’ and even some of the stronger concepts (“Burn the Bad Lamp”, for example, which hilariously features a genie) don’t quite stick the landing. There’s a sense of trying things here. A sense of seeing what’ll work and what won’t – and this an important and necessary step in an author’s development, for sure. The aforementioned stylistic innovation of “Party at Helen’s” succeeds – we jump from one character’s POV to another’s seamlessly, several times over – and to my mind, it gives the author the right to try something else… like, say creating a whole new dialect of the English language.
Mostly, it’s hard not to enjoy these stories – even the weaker ones. Barry just has a way with words, a simple magic that feels nonetheless like magic. Here’s a simple example, from the beginning of “Breakfast Wine”:
“They say it takes just three alcoholics to keep a small bar running in a country town and while myself and the cousin, Thomas, were doing what we could, we were a man shy, and these were difficult days for Mr. Kelliher, licensee of The North Star, Pearse Street.”
It’s colloquial, it’s comfortable – it sounds like that Irish guy at the bar ’round the corner who tells such great stories. It sounds like your friend who always has the deep yet sassy comment. It sounds like a smile on a summer evening.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The weaker stories here make me want to revise my opinion of Dark Lies the Island a little bit higher – there are a few tales here that do, for whatever reason, fall a bit short of the mark. But that doesn’t make this a bad collection. Far from it; as a debut, it pretty much crushes it and even looking at it retrospectively, you can see the talent that comes to the fore in Barry’s more recent works. I’ve said this twice now and I’ll say it at least once more before the year is out – but you need to read Kevin Barry. He’s an uncommon talent, all the more uncommon for how simple and life-like his insights can be.
I should also note that I read this book with a ‘tarot card’ (from Mike Daisey’s show at The Public right now) as a bookmark – and I couldn’t have asked for a more fitting placeholder.
(***This review originally appeared here, at The Next Best Book Blog – give them some love!***)