I often give Kevin Barry’s books to pals who don’t read much. They love him, and so do I. This story, from his first collection, is absolutely mad. The central character, John Martin, a farmer and remorseful swinger whose chicken operation is under inspection, spends the day driving around town in a state of existential desperation. It’s hysterical, and features many such lines as “He didn’t know how he finished that sausage sandwich but by Jesus he finished it.” But the brilliant thing about Barry is the way he sneaks in the devastating lines, too: “You imagine the whole wife-swapping business would take four decisions but really it only takes three.” Oh God.
First published in There are Little Kingdoms, Stinging Fly, 2007
I could select any number of Kevin Barry stories for the joy they create from his use of language. Here, an unnamed twentysomething narrator wrestles with himself as he tries to figure out how to make the first move on a young woman he has desired for at least three months which for him seems an eternity. The story is filmic and the camera is close up, so close that we see the “opaque down of her bare arms, each strand curling like a comma at its tip.” After a kiss that doesn’t take, the young woman leaves and his heart opens and takes in “every black poison the morning could offer.”
From Dark Lies the Island, Graywolf Press/Jonathan Cape, 2012. Available to read online at pen.org
A friend told me recently that whenever her mother phones, her small child pipes up, “Who’s dead?” and it’s true that the litany of the dead and the dying is increasingly the subject of conversation. Our deeply Irish interest in the details of others’ deaths (what I like to think of as the Who-By-Fire of it all) is brought to bold and brilliant life here, reminding us that this is neither nostalgia nor maudlin, but a noticing of people, a marking of who they were and the lives they led.
Con McCarthy is the local “connoisseur of death”, a figure of dread and fun, in his “enormous, suffering overcoat”. When pressed, Con says he finds death impressive – it is the one question we will all be asked yet to which “not one of us can make the report after”. The story shines in the darkly funny specifics of the deaths described, which put us on the side of the narrator, leaving poor Con alone carries the burden of ridicule and remembering.
When we are gone from memory, the story insists, then we are really gone.
The story appeared online in the Irish Times on 1 January 2020 and is collected in That Old Country Music, Canongate, 2020