County Sligo au­thor takes part in Lan­nan’s Lit­er­ary se­ries


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Bill Kohlhaaśe

Both the first and last sto­ries in Ir­ish au­thor Kevin Barry’s col­lec­tion Dark Lies the Is­land turn on a kiss. The open­ing tale, “Across the Rooftops,” de­tails a blun­dered smooch, its ini­ti­a­tion frus­trat­ingly drawn out at sun­rise on a rooftop in the city of Cork. The last, granted in “Ber­lin Arkonaplatz — My Les­bian Sum­mer,” is a “nico­tine burn” of a kiss de­liv­ered as a re­ward for pass­ing a room­mate’s look-ma-no-hands course in love­mak­ing. “The kiss was not the least of her gifts to me,” says Pa­trick, also of Cork, as he trav­els Ber­lin’s un­der­ground scene of 2005 with his comely guide Sil­vija. Both kisses hint at lit­er­a­ture’s most fa­mous lip-lock — the ac­ci­den­tal, pep­per­mint-scented one in An­ton Chekhov’s 1908 short story “The Kiss” — even though they dif­fer sharply in cir­cum­stance and era. Barry’s male kissers, like Chekhov’s Of­fi­cer Ryabovitch, are or­di­nary men look­ing for life’s prom­ise. In “Ber­lin,” Pa­trick and Sil­vija sup­ple­ment the lat­ter’s mea­ger in­come as a pho­tog­ra­pher with petty theft and break-ins. Mean­while, the rooftop Romeo, look­ing to im­press, tells the tar­get of his af­fec­tions, “you may be look­ing at the man who in­tro­duced Detroit techno to the savages of Cork city.” Both men are over­come with their hope for mod­ern ro­mance. Then things change.

The other sto­ries in the col­lec­tion, most set in a dreary con­tem­po­rary Ire­land, are about well-mean­ing folks who just can’t quite get things right. One is the story of a “happy mar­riage” that ends with the nar­ra­tor in cuffs, his face jammed on the hood of his car, which is parked at a big-box store. In an­other, a man falls in love while plan­ning a bomb­ing. Not so well-mean­ing are two grand­moth­erly types, ap­par­ently out on hol­i­day, chit-chat­ting as they look to abduct a child. Dark hu­mor gives way to belly laughs in “Beer Trip to Llan­dudno,” an ac­count of an ale club’s tour of the Welsh city’s taps.

Barry lives in a ren­o­vated for­mer po­lice sta­tion in the Ir­ish county of Sligo — and the area’s drab damp­ness seeps into his work. “The po­lice sta­tion is from the 1840s, and, trag­i­cally, it turns out not to be even mildly haunted,” Barry told Pasatiempo . “The south­ern end of County Sligo is one of the raini­est parts of Europe, and there are few dis­trac­tions from the writ­ing.”

Barry speaks at the Lensic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Wed­nes­day, March 4, as part of the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion’s Lit­er­ary se­ries. His read­ing is fol­lowed by a con­ver­sa­tion with Ethan Nosowsky, the ed­i­to­rial direc­tor of Gray­wolf Press. The writer’s body of work to date — two short story col­lec­tions and City of Bo­hane (2011), a novel set in an imag­ined Ir­ish city with its own quirky di­alect — came to Amer­ica in a rush when Gray­wolf Press re­leased all three books here in 2013. Barry’s first short story col­lec­tion, There Are Lit­tle King­doms , pub­lished by a small Ir­ish press in 2007, had al­ready won the Rooney Prize for Ir­ish Lit­er­a­ture for au­thors un­der forty (the award was es­tab­lished by Ir­ish-Amer­i­can Dan Rooney, for­mer U.S. Am­bas­sador to Ire­land and chair­man of the NFL’s Pitts­burgh Steel­ers). As its ti­tle im­plies, the sto­ries in There Are Lit­tle King­doms all have a def­i­nite sense of place, whether that’s Broad Street in At­lantic City or an in­bred Ir­ish town­ship. Char­ac­ters carry the airs of per­sonal en­ti­tle­ment that come with the illusion of rul­ing one’s own realm. Its sit­u­a­tions, like those in Dark Lies the Is­land , are at once funny and not so funny. Two farm­ers swap wives; two six­teen-year-old girls tease their way through a vil­lage; an af­ter-hours party in Gal­way gives way to a cold, rainy Sun­day.

Of the two short story col­lec­tions, Dark Lies the Is­land is the darker, its char­ac­ters more com­i­cally ex­ag­ger­ated

Some­times my de­sired ef­fect is for the reader to chuckle hap­pily all the way through a story and then, at the end, think, My God, what have I been laugh­ing at? — Kevin Bar­rry

and prone to doom. Like Amer­i­can short fic­tion writer Ge­orge Saun­ders, to whom he’s of­ten com­pared, Barry makes laughs and let­downs go hand in hand. “Cer­tainly I write come­dies, but come­dies that edge to­wards the very bleak end of the spec­trum,” Barry ex­plained. “I think my work is very dif­fer­ent from some­one like Ge­orge Saun­ders, but I do very much ad­mire the play of dark and light in his sto­ries.” The twists in Barry’s tone man­i­fest as an on­go­ing sense of fore­bod­ing — or they ar­rive as a fi­nal sur­prise. “I think my sto­ries amount to a kind of laugh­ter in the dark,” Barry said. “Some­times my de­sired ef­fect is for the reader to chuckle hap­pily all the way through a story and then, at the end, think, My God, what have I been laugh­ing at?”

Dia­logue is key in Barry’s sto­ries. He writes with a keen ear for rhythm and di­alect. The more pro­nounced the lo­cal talk’s fla­vor, the more Barry’s own nar­ra­tive voice seems to re­flect it. “My firm be­lief is that if you can get how peo­ple speak, you can get al­most ev­ery­thing else about them, too,” he said. “My most use­ful tool as a writer is cer­tainly the ear. On a slow day, I can al­most al­ways get my­self go­ing by writ­ing some dia­logue. In City

of Bo­hane , it is an imag­ined di­alect — it’s a pro­jec­tion of what homi­ci­dal teenage hip­sters might sound like in a de­ranged west-of-Ire­land city in the 2050s. But the di­alect is very much rooted in the work­ing-class speech of ac­tual Ir­ish cities like Lim­er­ick and Cork.”

The set­ting of his novel, with its drugs, gangs, and world-beat mu­sic, seems an ex­ag­ger­a­tion of the con­tem­po­rary ones of his short sto­ries. We rec­og­nize the land­scape and the themes of great Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture even among the meth, the raves, and the weed. Of­ten die-hard ro­man­tics, his char­ac­ters have an in­fec­tious lik­a­bil­ity in their il­lu­sory rea­sons for hope. Even as both their worlds are los­ing out to the “bo­hemian bour­geoisie,” Sil­vija see her­self as the “most bril­liant fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher in all of Ber­lin” and Pa­trick as the “cul­mi­na­tion of Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture.” Flat­tery of this kind is a strong muse in­deed, and long af­ter he and Sil­vija have parted ways, Pa­trick tells us, “I must be­lieve that she is out there, still beau­ti­ful, foul-mouthed and in­vi­o­late.”

In all his work, Barry treats the drink­ing life with re­spect, find­ing a vul­ner­a­bil­ity in those whose days are spent in the bot­tle. Drink­ing Jame­son Ir­ish whiskey against bad headaches, “Doc­tor Sot” goes on his merry way, look­ing to do his mis­guided good at ev­ery turn. He’s drunk but lov­able. “If you’re writ­ing about Ir­ish men, in par­tic­u­lar,” Barry told Pasatiempo , “it’s un­avoid­able that booze is go­ing to show up in the work. Ire­land is, and al­ways has been, a na­tion of drinkers. Which is not un­con­nected to the fact that it rains 300 days of the year here.” Spend­ing time in pubs, he con­fessed, plays a role in his writ­ing. “In terms of craft, and on a purely prag­matic level, I’d have to ad­mit that bars are some­times use­ful places for a writer to eaves­drop.”

Barry isn’t rest­ing on suc­cess. “My desk is a man­i­cally busy one,” he said. “A new novel, Beatle­bone , will ap­pear be­fore the year is out. There are al­ways some short sto­ries in var­i­ous stages of in­com­ple­tion. There’s a film script about horse rac­ing called The Gee Gees , which is gal­lop­ing along nicely.” Barry has also ex­pressed an in­ter­est in drama and act­ing. His read­ings, es­pe­cially when pulled from the dia­logue of City of Bo­hane , are mu­si­cal and rau­cous af­fairs. “Yes, I do work in theater a lit­tle, and it’s very much part of my am­bi­tion now to write for ac­tors. As the Lan­nan crowd will shortly find out, I’m kind of a frus­trated ac­tor my­self.”


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