‘The Coast of Leitrim’ by Kevin Barry

I don’t know if the word “delightful” is a good enough word to describe something you love, but when I first read this story I grinned like a fool from beginning to end. I’ve just read it again and I’m still smiling. Seamus isn’t the exile in this story, but Katherine is – a young woman from Poland working in a cafe in Carrick. They are both lonely and a bit lost, but they work through their awkwardness to accommodate each other’s failings – his weak chin and her lumpy knees – and find a way to make reality live with their ideals. Much of the humour of the story is in the language and the telling, and that’s enough to make it irresistible. But it also plays some very clever games with the conventions of romance, undercutting them at every stage with the rituals of everyday life – shopping in Lidl, stalking an Instagram account. They lose each other of course, and after a modern version of a romantic quest, by google maps and a cheap flight to Wroclaw, Seamus finds her again. When he walks into the last internet cafe in Europe where Katherine is the only customer, she sees him and says, “Oh, thanks be to fuck”, and you know they’ll be alright.

First published in The New Yorker, October 2018, and available to read and listen to here. Collected in That Old Country Music, Canongate, 2020

‘Extremadura’ by Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry is the writer everyone wants to write like. I came across his work during lockdown and couldn’t get enough. The dialect, the darkness, the lyricism. He’s a literary trickster extraordinaire. You read one Barry and you want to read them all. Then all over again.

‘Extremadura (Until Night Falls)’ has at its centre a typical Barry character, a man who has landed in Spain, fleeing his Irish family ties, escaping his life. As often is the case, there’s a dog, a girl, and a melancholy heart. But familiar characters aside, there’s nothing ordinary about Kevin Barry’s dark Spanish tale. It pounds with the heartbeat of the west of Ireland.

First published in That Old Country Music, Canongate 2020

‘Animal Needs’ by Kevin Barry

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

‘Across the Rooftops’ by Kevin Barry

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

‘Who’s-Dead McCarthy’ by Kevin Barry

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