County Sligo author takes part in Lannan’s Literary series
AUTHOR KEVIN BARRY
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.”