The Stinging Fly Press (2013), 176 Pages
Hodges Figgis, €12.99
This is Colin Barrett’s debut book and it casts a cold eye over modern Ireland. The seven stories are set in the fictional western town of Glanbeigh and focus on the violence, isolation, and fear of trying to create a sense of meaning in a failed society. The vital importance of alcohol and it’s ruinous effects are illuminated by the harsh glare of Barrett’s prose. Barrett’s style is not disimilar to another Stinging Fly author, Kevin Barry. The strength of this collection is in the evocation of the inner workings of the male mind.
Barrett’s characters are disconnected from the mythic Irish past. The characters create their own myths and legends in the streets of Glanbeigh but there is a nihilsim to their creations. Myths are fuelled by alcohol and violence. The most sucessful story, Stand Your Skin, contains one of the few sympathetic characters, Eamonn “Bat” Battigan. A victim of random violence and circumstance, Bat is destined to live out his days on the verges of chaste alcoholism with his mother for company.
“Bat was never a good looking lad, even before Tansey cracked his face in half, he know that . . . . The boot to the face. Nubbin Tansey, may he rest in pieces. Munroe’s chipper, years gone now . . . . Six separate operations, ninety-two percent articulation recovered and the brunt of the visible damage surgically effaced but for a couple of minute white divots in his left cheek, and a crooked droop to the mouth on that side.” (p. 46)
There is a Joycean sense of paralysis to these stories. The characters seem incapable of altering their futures. There is no moral compass to guide them. The absence of religious faith has been filled by cheap consumerism and alcohol.
The longest story in the collection, Calm With Horses, traces the path of a small time drug dealer and the choice he makes that will lead him to his fate. Again the writing is sharp and evocative. For me the main incident in the story where Arm confronts Fannigan doesn’t ring wholly true nor does it seem likely that the cannabis growing operation (and arsenal) built up by Dympna’s uncles would go unnoticed in a small town. Arm’s murderous violence undercuts the apparent love he has for his disabled son. In a novel, more in-depth characterisation might have made the multi-faceted aspect of Arm’s personality more understable but in a short story Barrett is perhaps expecting too much of his audience to expect them to feel any great sympathy for Arm (if that was the author’s intention).
Barrett is on firmer ground when exposing the deceitful workings of small town Irish society where the public masks worn by the characters can conceal ulterior motives as in Dympna’s uncle’s relationship with a local widow, “The more presentable and socially adroit of the uncles, Hector had a woman by the name of Mirkin squirrelled away in Ballintober, a widow with whom he’d been pursuing a glacially paced courtship for the last three years; the woman also in her fifties, had until recently lived with her ninety-something mother and, fretful of scandalising the old crone, had only permitted her suitor to visit one night every few weeks. . . . Dympna had his own theories concerning the courtship. He was convinced that the widow was sitting on a lot of money, a potential double inheritance, and that Hector was on its track, painstakingly working the slow grift.” (p. 84)
Young Skins is an exciting collection that hits the mark more often than not. Barrett’s vision is a bleakly accurate portrayal of contemporary Ireland and this book would make a good Christmas present for anybody who wants a taste of some modern Irish fiction.