Here’s the heroine of the title story, for instance, 17 years old and pregnant by her mother’s shiftless lover, gazing at herself in a car mirror: “She had a face on her like a scorched budgie. She detested herself.” Written over the course of eight years, these stories aren’t quite of equal strength, but throughout, their language is exhilarating, its verve evoking the very best of Barry’s compatriots while further carving out a territory that’s all his own.
Kevin Barry’s third short story collection is full of the damaged characters, menacing rural scenery and darkly comic, slantwise prose that have become his trademark.
A couple of the stories don’t come off, including the title piece, told, for a change, from the viewpoint of a 17-year-old girl: Barry’s attempt to mix his own eloquent idiom with one suitable for her doesn’t quite work. But give him a Sligo sad-sack and he’ll get the register just right, spinning exhilaratingly funny and poignant fables from quotidian misery.
Now comes his third collection of short stories, That Old Country Music. Shafts of high comedy have always distinguished Barry’s work, the swerve from grief into blessed laughter, devastating throwaway lines summing up a life or a failure. His knockout way to turn a sentence remains, but there are fewer laughs here; urban larks and verbals replaced by an undercurrent of sadness: lacrimae rerum.
Deservedly acclaimed — his novel Night Boat to Tangier was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards novel of the year, and he is a former winner of what is now the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award — Barry’s deceptively laid-back writing has an assured texture. He makes it look easy, but it is unmistakably deft even in relatively minor pieces.