|THE NEW REVIEW|
Book detail on the Stinging Fly website
Small town inhabitants and their folksy quirks have been the inspiration for fiction writers for ages, ready-made for serious to comedic examination. Frequently dusted off and trotted out like androids in a theme park, they make for great copy and rustic tales. It’s gotten harder to be original in that sub genre but with the right approach, it can be great.
Long summer days and longer nights – even though it has all shut down by eleven, certain nights stretch on in that long ago in small hamlets sprinkled across the pastoral landscape of Ireland. At those moments, it seems as if everything has slowed down and plays out in not quite real-time. The quote above begins ‘Atlantic City’, the first story of thirteen from a new collection by Kevin Barry. It doesn’t have anything to do with Atlantic City, NJ, but rather a pinball machine of that name that is set in ‘a breeze-block arcade tacked onto Moloney’s garage. This had been one of Moloney’s sharper moves.’ A local hang-out and gathering place – it had a ‘pool table, three video games, a wall mounted jukebox and a pinball machine.’
James (Jamesie) rules the spot with an easy strength and humour. A big ‘massive’ lad, he plays billiards and drifts between that and showing his dominance over the pinball and chatting up the young girls hanging around, all without missing a beat. When a player scores a record high on the pinball machine, a black detective portrayed on the game announces in a deep voice, ‘Atlantic City. Feel the force.’ The atmosphere hangs heavy on this particular night but not oppressively, as the banter and good-natured trash talking flow and the craic is ace. The night concludes eventually, all going their separate ways but Barry casts a backward glance before putting the memory away.
No, this is definitely not an idyllic farm setting as John Martin makes abundantly clear in ‘Animal Needs’, a title that we find out rather quickly means something on a couple of different levels.
As we enter Meadowsweet Farm, John is both trying to ready the place for an inspection of some sort while haranguing his wife over sexual matters, nearly in tandem. This proves frustrating for John and he soon takes off for an adulterous assignation that has unexpected results. A droll comedic tale of compulsion turned wrenching by the realization that there’s a child on the periphery.
A train moves through an Irish winter morning --‘ Through and on, North Tipperary, weary hedgerows, and chimney pots, and the far-out satellite towns of reason, all of it stunned looking with the onslaught of winter, as if winter were a surprise to the place…and it darkened, as though on a dimmer switch, the morning became smudged and inky.
A brief conversation on the train between an old woman and a young girl, strangers, hangs in the air, suspended, the way those train encounters sometimes do when people are the others’ captive audience. Things are said, revealed, that might not be under other circumstances. Actually, conversation in ‘The Wintersongs’ is a mis-statement – it really is the old woman’s monologue, a caution to the young girl from a rascally unrepentant elder who sees a hint of herself in the girl.
Beginner’s luck, maybe – she herself says, ‘I wasn’t the first eejit to come up with this idea. It took no more than six months and I was wiped out.’
‘Party at Helen’s’, is a recollection of a party some fifteen years past, only the recollection is so vibrant that it’s like hearing Barry talk about it a couple of days after over coffee when the various levels of hangover have subsided.
It’s practically cinematic as we drift among the characters at the party, degrees of altered state enhancing already nuanced observation. A good-looking but, slightly off young punter scoping out a young woman over to the side.
By the time you’ve been there awhile, the characters at the party are like old pals whose quirks seem somehow familiar but at moments, their ghosts seem to hover lightly in the background.
Barry even takes on an Aladdin-like tale in the hilarious ‘Burn the Bad Lamp’, about a modern day genie, that appears to one Ralph Coughlan, antique dealer, as he polishes a lamp, and who bears not the slightest resemblance to the eternal genie image of everyone’s childhood. It turns out that the granting of wishes is not that simple in the physical world.
And on – the rest of Kevin Barry’s stories in the collection are small gems. ‘To the Hills’ follows a trio of hillwalkers in Wicklow – two women and a man, trying to make some sort of connection with each other but missing the mark – maybe due to modern concerns like Goretex, Northface and performance anxiety. ‘See the Tree, How Big it’s Grown’, about an older man who seems to be an amnesiac and washes up in Clonmel, to find himself the owner of a chipper. Foley, in ‘Last Days of the Buffalo’ is a gentle giant, a big youth, born of two dysfunctional parents, who has the gift or curse of pre-cognition, while twin sisters, Donna and Dee, restlessly prowl the streets of an unnamed village, looking for response in ‘Ideal Homes’.
In ‘Nights at the Gin Palace’, Freddie Bliss drinks away, in his antique, fallen-to-ruin house in a world gone by, and visits his with his long dead wife in private conversations while his clueless grown daughter, Angelica, knocks walls out and fantasizes about turning it into a quaint hotel. ‘The house had settled over its long years, it hunkered down into the Cumbrian shale’. Its creaks and groans seem a kind of deranged monks’ choir in the background. ‘Breakfast Wine’, ‘Penguins’ and the title story, ‘There Are Little Kingdoms’ fill out the rest, all good pieces.
This entire group of vignettes is reminiscent to me at times of Sherwood Anderson’s American classic, ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ (1919), that examined a group of characters or ‘grotesques’ among the folk in a small mid-western town. Barry has done that as well, but also captures the transitional moment when a type of small town life slips quietly into the homogenized modern present. Barry never falls into mourning this or lamenting the loss of the old ways but just writes about the inevitability of it with a wonderful twisted humour. For some reason, his writing style resonates personally with me. Beside perceptive, his prose are exquisite and highly visual, and the pages teem with human wildlife, briefly captured sentiment and sidelong glance. To return one last time to the first story, ‘Atlantic City’, as the night, against all silent protest, wraps up.
To paraphrase the detective on the pinball machine earlier: ‘Feel the force’.
Reproduced with permission
Marc Goldin currently lives in Chicago, with three cats, each one more long-haired than the last. Interests have ranged from medieval monasticism to discontinued stations on the London Underground – literary likes too diverse (some would say schizo) to list here although the last several years have been witness to an intimacy with Scottish and Irish literature. American Southern and Beat era lit also account for some of the ‘missing years’. Music tastes run the gamut from Cuban Danzon to Ska (all three waves but having a specific attachment to the second, two-tone period) to the Tuvan throat singers. Has written book reviews for a now defunct Irish literature site and has several short stories in various stages of development. Mad for black and white photography and aspires to someday have a complete collection of photos documenting every close in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh. Works in the IT dept. of a French company in the current political climate. In football, supports Chelsea, Hibs, and for the sake of employment security, Marseille. For more articles and reviews by Marc on The New Review, click here or to read Marc's story, 'Plastic Paddy' on the Showcase, click here
|THERE ARE LITTLE KINGDOMS
(The Stinging Fly Press 2007)
Reviewed by Marc Goldin
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