“That Old Country Music” by Kevin Barry

February 20th, 2021  |  Published in January/February 2021

Kevin Barry, whose 2019 novel “Night Boat to Tangier” was one of that year’s best novels, has returned with a gorgeous book of short stories, “That Old Country Music”, which absolutely places him in the top tier of writers in the world.  The quotation he uses as his frontispiece rather sums up the stories:  “I think that the romantic impulse is in all of us and that sometimes we live it for a short time, but it’s not part of a sensible way of living.  It’s a heroic path and it generally ends dangerously.  I treasure it in the sense that I believe it’s a path of great courage.  It can also be the path of the foolhardy and the compulsive” (Jane Campion). Barry, who lives in County Swigo in the West of Ireland, manages to mix the unbeatably beautiful landscape (sky, mountains, ocean) as the backdrop for all these stories; Ireland’s natural beauty often contrasts with and/or enhances the romantic impulses that run throughout these magnificent, nearly flawless stories. Atmosphere is one of Barry’s great strengths, as it was to great effect in “Night Boat to Tangier”, and Barry’s frequently lonely, single men and women who appear in the current stories must be seen in the context of Ireland’s romantic beauty, but that beauty contains very small towns with a lot of lonely people, and Barry’s interest in these stories is often in the intersection of loneliness, love and lust, all of which may be considered romantic topics.    Many of the tragic women in Edna O’Brien’s stories of an earlier Ireland set the groundwork for Barry’s women (and men, now, too) as he investigates/plays with/deeply grounds his stories in these interconnecting emotions. “Who’s Dead McCarthy” features a lonely man who wanders the few streets of a small Irish town, stopping people to let them know who’s just died in the area; he’s not so much the crepe hanger at the feast as a man who’s watching his youth and young adulthood vanish before his eyes; Barry presents him as both silly and deadly serious concurrently.  (We all probably know someone like this character, more so as we age, and fear those phone calls announcing someone’s death or the advent of awful diseases).  In “Toronto and The State of Grace”, a mother and son enter a bar in one of those same small Irish towns, regaling each other (and the trapped, anxious bartender) with stories of their “gloried” past (in small towns near and around Toronto), remembering these glory days as they drink enormous amounts of alcohol as they appear to be wandering aimlessly from one town to another, seeking new audiences for their stories (which are quite wonderful); the mother, however, drops dead at the bar, leaving the son without any future or identity without his “stage” mother, if you will; like most Barry stories here, the tone is funny and sad, sometimes tragic and sometimes silly concurrently: Barry’s ability to create these differing emotional states concurrently is one of his great gifts, the largest being, however, his use of language: Barry’s as close to a poet as  a prose writer can be, bringing to mind his great Irish predecessor, William Trevor.  “That Old Country Music”, a story itself, is as ancient as one can find; an older man has got a young Irish girl knocked up; she’s convinced he’s going to rob a store and return for her to run away together, but, in the end, only her mother finds her, in a moving story that is, indeed, “that old country music”.

Reading Barry’s new stories is a huge treat, both for the moods he sets, for that combination of atmosphere and longing and loneliness and lust he’s put together. And we’re in the hands of a master writer here, yet again; I can’t wait to read further Barry work in the future; he’s at mid-career and has much to tell us about stories and people and about writing itself.

–Daniel Brown

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