That Old Country Music, by Kevin Barry, Canongate Books, 192 pp, ISBN: 978-1782116219
I am not sure that there has ever been another work of Kevin Barry’s in which the landscape features as hauntingly, or as prominently, as it does in his latest collection of short stories, That Old Country Music. Rivalling this is only perhaps City Of Bohane (2011), his debut novel, whose first sentence, “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river”, does an impressive amount of narratorial heavy lifting in helping to establish the tone of a story about a fictitious southwestern Irish city plagued by a seemingly ancient violence. Beatlebone (2015), Night Boat to Tangier (2019), and both of Barry’s previous short story collections, There Are Little Kingdoms (2007) and Dark Lies the Island (2012) all feature moments in which the West of Ireland’s landscape seems to be Barry’s real subject. Even the film adaptation of Dark Lies the Island (2019) is full of beautifully desolate, vaguely baleful, shots of the West.
And nowhere does the weight of the landscape seem to press down as much upon its inhabitants as in this latest collection. Ten out of the eleven stories which make up the collection take place under “the hateful shadow of the Ox”, Bluestack and Bricklieve Mountains. Anchoring the collection, the mountains lend the stories an air of the mythological and, at times, seem to be the very source of the melancholy and moodiness coursing through the book. The West is “a place haunted by desperate mammals”, the narrator of “Ox Mountain Death Song” tells us, “since the hills and mountains had cracked and opened ‑ as the province of Connacht formed ‑ a place with a diabolic feeling sometimes along its shale and bracken stretches; a darkness that seeped not from above but from beneath.”
That Old Country Music is full of what we have come to expect from Kevin Barry ‑ meticulously crafted, offbeat songs of love and lust told darkly. Although there is, of course, quite a lot of doom and gloom, the stories are tempered with humour and smatterings of hope. The collection opens with “The Coast of Leitrim”, in which we meet one of Barry’s more memorable lonely bachelors, Seamus Ferris. At thirty-five, and with no living family, Seamus “… was a little stunned at this relatively young age to find himself on a solo run through life”. Having being made redundant by the tech company he had worked for, Seamus’s days have become long and empty. He frequents a local café whose barista, Katherine, he is helplessly besotted with. He does his best to make small talk while ordering his flat whites before, one day, finally working up courage enough to ask Katherine, who is Polish, on a date. Falling head over heels with her had been the easy part, but being “tormented now by his own happiness”, and the very real prospect of losing it, quickly become Seamus’s obsessions. Love is strong but doubt, it turns out, can be stronger.
“The Coast of Leitrim” sets the scene for the rest of the collection. Although this is recognisably twenty-first century Ireland ‑ there are flat whites and Instagram stalking in the first story alone ‑ Barry’s prose has a timelessness to it. This might be chalked up to its self-consciously Hiberno-English timbre. Barry’s characters speak in vernaculars and rhythms which we don’t often encounter in contemporary Irish literature, music or film. In fact, much of his vitality comes from the results he gets from steeping the internet-fed, hybridised version of English we speak today in Ireland in the darker hues of the arguably less refined, but much more animated, Hiberno-English that’s more readily associated with a rural Ireland of the past. On a side note, it is refreshing that in a cultural moment which looks more and more to Dublin, and even to other cities abroad, that a writer like Barry, and his west and southwest contemporaries, namely Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Colin Barrett, Lisa McInerney and Mike McCormack, continue to carve out a voice and a space for themselves on the evolving landscape of Irish literature.
Hibernicisms abound. In “Old Stock”, a writer suffering from writer’s block and needing to get out of Sligo heads north to visit his dying Uncle Aldo, who lives alone in a cottage near the Bluestack mountains in Donegal. The narrator, formerly suicidal (“It was the sheer iciness of the water that forced me back. Though I suppose January is a tough month for everyone.”), is quickly taken in by the beauty of his surroundings as well as by some of the stranger “perks” of his uncle’s cottage. Soon the fog lifts and he finds that he can write once more. The narrator’s final epiphany about moving on from his uncle’s cottage comes to him inflected in distinctly Hiberno-English phrasing: “To face myself I had to leave him go.”
In “Saint Catherine of the Fields”, a scholar and transcriber of nineteenth-century sean-nós music, after receiving word that there is a man by the name of Timothy Jackson in Sligo with a famous knowledge of the stuff, is drawn out from his comfort zone in Dublin to seek him out. He convinces Jackson, who lives in a care home and “isn’t great in himself”, to sing. The song he sings is about a woman who embarks on an affair with a herdsman and resonates with the lovelorn narrator, who knows something of what it means to be betrayed.
The stories in the collection have an ancient ring to them. There is a feeling throughout that although these characters might be new to us, the stories themselves are not. “Saint Catherine of the Fields”, whose plot of betrayal mimics its subplot, underscores this idea. In life as in art, unseen and unknowable forces push us towards making bad decisions. The doomed and those drawn to them are the people whom Barry writes best. The collection’s final story, “Roethke in the Bughouse” leans into madness. Based on the real-life breakdown the American poet Theodore Roethke had on Inishbofin, the story details his fragile recovery. In a hospital in Mayo, his mind begins putting itself back together. He knows he is brilliant, if broken, and tries to reconcile the widening chasm between these two facts.
He has been to many great places. He slaughtered a dragon once on Second Avenue in Seattle. He battered some fiends in White Harlem. He has made some beautiful work, he believes ‑ who the fuck is better than me? He has given himself a fucking shot at it, he believes. Because brokenheartedness is the note that sustains always and this he can play at will.
There are some stories in the collection which aren’t quite as successful. “Roma Kid” is about a young Roma girl living in Dublin who boards a train and ends up in Sligo. There, she meets a man in the woods who becomes a guardian of sorts to her. The story is the most jarring of the collection, and one feels Barry, at times, uncharacteristically pushing us towards a sentimentality that doesn’t feel altogether earned. “Extremedura (Until Night Falls)”, which gives us a snapshot of a vagabond Irish expat living in Spain, also feels tonally at odds with the rest of the stories. (It was in fact originally published in the anthology A Kind of Compass (2015), edited by Belinda McKeon.) Its vagaries come off a little flat in a collection full of bold, memorable moments.
The collection’s highlight (and one of Barry’s best stories to date), “That Old Country Music” opens with Hannah Cryan (remember the name), seventeen years old and four months pregnant, sitting in her fiancé’s van while he heads off on a dirtbike to rob a petrol station just off the N4. The plan is for Setanta Bromell to “get into the petrol station just after it opened, show the claw hammer and start roaring out of himself”. The pair would then cross the border and take the ferry over to Scotland. From there, head south and settle down “in a neat little flat in a tower block” in Wakefield with their newborn. If matters weren’t complicated enough, Setanta, who is almost twice Hannah’s age, was, until recently, engaged to her mother ‑ to whom he incidentally owes four thousand euro.
Back in the van, Hannah is bored. Her phone has just died but Setanta has taken the keys. She sits impatiently, singing a Taylor Swift song. She thinks about the past few months she and Setanta spent sleeping in “two sleeping bags zipped together” on the floor of Setanta’s tattoo parlour, wondering what their future will look like. She is worried, though. It’s getting late and there’s still no sign of him. For a moment, as Hannah sits there waiting, it feels as though anything might be possible in her story, as though the sad circumstances from which she comes, and the current mess in which we meet her, mean nothing at all. There is a feeling that this is merely preamble to a brighter future she is dreaming into being.
If there is a God in Barry’s fiction, it is a Calvinist not a Catholic one. Redemption, if it falls, falls fleetingly; fate, on the other hand, is eternal. As is the case in many of these meticulously engineered stories, “That Old Country Music” reminds us that much of life ‑ the stuff of fiction, the stuff that hurts ‑ is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.
Tadhg Hoey is a writer based in Dublin. His writing has appeared in BOMB, The Dublin Review of Books, Headstuff, and The Irish Times.