At the end of last year, the Guardian published an article called A New Irish Literary Boom: the Post Crash Stars of Fiction, which explored the recent flourishing of literary fiction from the island. Focusing on writers like Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Paul Murray, Belinda McKeon, Rob Doyle and Sara Baume to name but a few, the article celebrated the new and original work currently being produced by Irish writers and the new found optimism of independent publishers like Tramp Press, Liberties Press and The Stinging Fly. The writer Julian Gough sees the financial crash as being instrumental to this upsurge in new writing;
The crash plunged us back into self-doubt and anger and black humour and negative equity; places in which Irish literature is more comfortable. Irish writers function best when everything is going to hell, whether a psyche or an economy.
However, Kevin Barry has a note of caution, saying
I think it would be smug and premature to herald a golden age but maybe a proper radicalism is at last starting to re-emerge in Irish writing. We should always remember that being innovative and wild and not afraid to go completely fucking nuts on the page is what built its reputation in the first half of the 20th century.
Whatever the underlying causes of this new literary scene, there is no denying a new generation of writers is emerging, gaining national and international attention and winning high profile awards.
Over the next week for Reading Ireland Month, I will look at the work of some of these new writers, starting today with Young Skins by Colin Barrett.
My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk
So begins Colin Barrett’s striking debut collection of short stories all set in the fictional County Mayo town of Glanbeigh. These unsentimental, often brutal stories lay bare the lives of the young male in a small rural Irish town and present us with a post-Boom world of alienation and hopelessness.
Barrett’s characters have little ambition. Bouncers, petrol station workers or thuggish small time criminals, they are the ones who stay in the town while the smarter kids head off to University in Dublin or Galway. In The Moon, bouncer Val, well known in the town, becomes involved with his boss’s daughter.
‘you like this place, don’t you Val? You like everything about it’, said Martina
‘that sounds like an accusation’
‘Not at all. Someone has to stay put, hold the fort’
‘You’re not going anywhere that far’
‘Galway’s not that far’, said Martina, ‘but it might as well be the moon for people like you’
Outside of Glanbeigh may well be the Moon for the majority of the characters in Young Skins where random acts of petty violence and passionless relationships are the yardsticks for directionless lives.
William Faulkner described his Yoknapatawpha County as a ‘cosmos of my own’ and Barrett does the same with Glanbeigh and like Faulkner is ‘sublimating the actual into the apocryphal’. The stories all stand alone, connected only by place, apart from one minor character, Nubbin Tansey, the town fighter who bigs himself up in a pool hall before appearing in another story to kick someone’s head in, with disastrous consequences. Later we are told that Tansey has hung himself,
He was one of them couldn’t stand being in his own skin.
Not many of Barrett’s characters can stand being in their own skin. In Diamonds, a recovering alcoholic finds that coming home doesn’t provide him the solace he needs to stay sober and he ends up pretending to be someone else. In Kindly Forget My Existence two old friends cower in the pub rather than go to the funeral of a woman they both loved. This perfectly structured story echoes with references to death, from the title which is taken from Joyce’s The Dead, to the name of the pub they sit in – The Boatman.
In the effective and moving Stand Your Skin, Bat tries to anaesthetise the trauma of a vicious assault through beer and late night motor bike rides, but nothing can stop the headaches or the worry of his mother.
This is what a mother must do: pre-emptively conjure the worst-case scenarios in order to avert them. She never considered or foresaw that little shit Nubbin Tansey and his boot and he happened. She cannot make the same mistake again.
There is a part of her that hates her son, the enormous, fatiguing fragility of him
All Barrett’s young skins are looking for meaning in a world that is scornful of their attempts. In The Clancy Kid, Tug, whose nickname is Manchild, becomes obsessed with a boy who went missing three months previously and conjures up theories to explain the child’s disappearance. In The Bait, Matteen is also obsessed, this time over a girl he was with for two weeks, and has his friend drive him past her house again and again.
Sex and relationships provide little solace for these men. When Bat sees his friend Tain getting together with a man from the town he notes that,
there’s something mechanistic and barely controlled in her reciprocation. It looks coercive
There is little romance when it comes to dating or getting together in Glanbeigh
Shifting was a curiously bloodless, routinized ritual, involving lengthy arbitration by the friends of the prospective pairings, who, as in arranged marriages, did not so much as get to say hello until they were shoved into each other’s arms and exhorted to take the dark walk into the maw of the woods.
His characters may be tough, or lost or aimless, but what elevates this collection is the detail with which Barrett conveys the moments of softening and of hope. This is seen most particularly in the centrepiece of the collection – a striking novella called Calm With Horses.
A young drug dealer, Dympna and his right hand man Arm find themselves in a difficult situation when a sexual predator creates problems with their suppliers. Arm has an autistic son, with his estranged partner and it is through this father son relationship that we glimpse the ordinary man, who could lead an ordinary life if only he wasn’t in the profession he was in. Arm tries to do the right thing but comes to realise that things can spin out of control with frightening ease
Arm tried to assess the situation, but what was there to assess? Things had got fucked, precipitously and in multiple ways and for little reason
In the Tarantino-esque scenes that follow, Barrett could easily have made Arm that cliché of the tough guy with the heart of gold, but instead he creates a vivid and complex man, convincing rather than convenient.
Nature too is hard in Glanbeigh. The local woods are called Bleak Woods and the River Mule that runs through the town is less an attraction and more a means to get rid of a dead body. Cows in the field are ‘sullen’ and the coastline is a ‘gnarled jawline’.
This may be a post Celtic Tiger Ireland, but the old myths are never far from the surface. A young man is led into the woods by mysterious girls and a strange old man known as Father Time is an unsettling figure. In The Clancy Kid Tug and Jimmy encounter some strange children guarding a bridge, while tree branches brush their faces like ‘witches fingers’
The beams of the crippled bridge warp and sing beneath us all the way over, and when we make it to the far shore and step back on to solid earth, a surge of absurd gratitude flows through me. I reach out and pat Tug on the shoulder and turn to salute the boy king and his giggling girl entourage. But when I look back across the tumbling black turbulence of water I see that the children are gone.
Myths are not just in the past in Young Skins, they are always being created in an endless, resonant process.
In a piece for the Guardian last year, Barrett said
I grew up in a town like this, knew people infused with the same peculiar sensibility as this cast of characters, but do not let me mislead you by implying I have any authoritative judgment to deliver on this world.
Barrett is not delivering judgement, rather he is shining a light on the small lives, the hard and hopeless lives of his young skins and using language to give their desperation a significance. There is a real poetry to Barrett’s writing, despite, or perhaps because of the subject matter. The sophisticated use of language gives the stories a metaphorical significance.
The railings were eaten through, thinned to crusted spindles of rust at their most exposed points. Beyond them lay the rush-topped hillocks and sandbars, the sand milk-blue in the moonlight. Arm scanned the boiling surf for a long time, watched the way each wave rose, evolved like a fortification, and then collapsed.
These are stories that are beautifully written and open ended enough to invite multiple readings and mark an extraordinary debut from an exciting new writer.