Once Upon A Time in the West
Book review by Jude Joseph Lovell
Here we are in the U.S.A. in “the evil of its winter,” to lift a phrase from the celebrated Irish fiction writer Kevin Barry’s brand-new book of stories, That Old Country Music (Doubleday). “But then,” he notes, “I suppose January is a tough month for everyone.”
Preach it, Mr. Barry. But what better to help us through the winter doldrums than a fresh batch of new stories, rife with lyricism and beauty, and invigorated with shots of truth? Readers could scarcely do better than Barry’s third collection, which once again puts this middle-aged bard’s preternatural gift for storytelling on parade.
Already renowned around the globe for his impressive stories and novels—his audacious, wild debut novel City of Bohane earned him the IMPAC Literary Award, an international prize—Kevin Barry has the sort of skills that leap at you from the page and somehow feel as ancient and colorful as Ireland itself. It’s hard to think of another contemporary writer whose work reads as if it was scraped somehow out of the author’s very bone marrow.
Short stories are an acquired taste for some. They tend to guide us into terra incognita, in a sense—or at least into aspects of life that escape definition. In general, novels tend to shape themselves around recognizable and more comfortable narrative structures, more often than not leading us to some type of satisfactory end.
Stories can go anywhere. And it seems that the greater the renown of the practitioner of the form, the more open to interpretation their work is. Think Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro, or another Irish titan, William Trevor.
Kevin Barry’s stories are in this vein. The best way to appreciate them is perhaps a little like the way we learn to appreciate life itself. It’s much more about the journey than the destination.
That is why a sentence like this one from “The Coast of Leitrim,” a straight-up love story that opens this excellent book, seems to hit us low and inside: “To experience a feeling as deep as this only raised the spectre of losing it.” We know it’s true—the coming loss—but we can appreciate the depth the sentence (and the story) has plunged us unexpectedly into.
Many of these stories deal with loss, heartbreak, and the slow erosion time imposes upon us all. With an Irish writer as tethered to his homeland as Barry, you can’t avoid these. “In the native way, he was tormented now by his own happiness,” the author writes. But from these same materials, Barry also mines extraordinary beauty: “Across the fields, she could hear the river moving. The river talked to itself of all that it had seen.”
If you have ever been to Barry’s Ireland, especially in the country, you have heard these monologues. But the truth is, as we gain experience and wisdom ourselves, no matter where we roam, we hear the same murmuring from our own bloodstream. It is the beauty and the craftsmanship of Barry’s language that helps us to grasp the common experience.
But while Barry’s overall concern is that unnerving oscillation between euphoria and heartbreak that rattles us all as we stockpile the years, in this collection perhaps more than previously he narrows in on the western, coastal region of Ireland. Many of the stories take place in County Sligo, bordering the northern Atlantic, where Barry himself lives and works. This landscape frequently comes across as its own character in That Old Country Music.
In “Old Stock,” a writer with similarities to the author winkingly declares, “This place would wreak [expletive] havoc on a man’s prose if you let it.” Elsewhere we listen as “the sea moved rustily on its cables.” The reader gets the sense that the region evokes a strange magic, lovely and sad together: “Catastrophe was a low-slung animal creeping darkly over the ditches, across the hills.”
Against this backdrop, navigating through unfettered lives in the grip of older and more powerful spirits, Barry’s characters stoically endure. They do their best. In “Who’s-Dead McCarthy,” a “man out of time somehow” makes his way by being the gossipy villager who reports to everyone he meets on the latest workings of Death—until it finally comes for him. In the aforementioned “The Coast of Leitrim,” a man whose fate has led him to a solitary existence contemplates the long and lonely evenings: “They opened out like bleak continents. They were landscapes sombre and with twisted figures.”
But the most potent blend of rugged characters and the elusive sorcery of the land itself may be found in “Roma Kid,” a haunting tale about a small girl from a foreign country who flees alone by train from Dublin towards the west coast. She is escaping a short life of tragedy and danger, the nature of which is not explained, but is enough for her to abandon four younger, beloved brothers. Sensing still more threats, she hops the train and wanders through the countryside, alone and hungry, until she falls and is injured. She is thereupon rescued by a solitary older man living out of a shack in the wild.
But here the tale veers away from darkness. The two odd figures, who do not even share a common language, form a lasting and poignant bond. Time marches forward, and so does this lovely yarn, until it culminates in this manner:
She lived long and calmly, and calmly even went the moment of his eclipsing, when she became and replaced him, and laid her fingertips on his eyelids to close them, and she took on the forces of the place.
That Old Country Music is a verdant and evocative collection of tales, as worthwhile as they are succinct, written by an emergent master who seems to have somehow harnessed that same magic.
Photo credit by Author.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.