Dark Lies the Island, By Kevin Barry
Tales of the unexpectedly romantic
Dark Lies the Island is a pacy collection of 13 modern tales about sozzled Irish men, neatly captured middle-class couples, sinisterly plotting old women and damaged lesbian hipsters. It's sharply observed, frequently rude, often very funny – and award winning. "Beer Trip to Llandudno", about a group of real ale enthusiasts, recently won the Sunday Times short story competition.
Kevin Barry has a breeziness which lets the reader easily, quickly grab a hold of his protagonists, and bowl along with their lives, if only for a few pages. There's a blokishness to most of Dark Lies the Island, but usually a wry, warm one – even if the seeming inevitability of older men perving on younger girls does get a little wearing. The other side of that coin is a certain masculine romantic idealism, which itemises and idolises women; they've a tendency, in the eyes of Barry's characters, to be practically perfect creatures. In "Fjord of Killary", the poet-turned-publican narrator declares he's "the last of the hopeless romantics" – not in this collection he's not. They'll keep cropping up, mooning over ex-girlfriends, falling for "every girl on the Northern line", treasuring blurry old photographs.
There's also an interest in society's vicious underbelly. "White Hitachi" follows a couple of in-and-out-of-jail chancers, and is written in exuberant Irish dialect. "The Girls and the Dogs" delivers an Irvine Welsh-level of nasty sex and psychopathic menace. (Welsh is unsurprisingly quoted in the blurb as a Barry fan.) But some of the most successful stories are the ones in which Barry eschews the low-life, half-cut, vaguely violent stuff in favour of characters that torture themselves with their own neuroses. The types who don't suffer fools, yet recognise their own foolishness and suffer as a result.
So in "Fjord of Killary", Biblical floods rise around a hotel, prompting rising panic, dedicated drinking and even a desperate disco. It turns out that this absurd apocalypse was just what the maudlin owner – despairing of his yokel customers, his surly Belarusian staff, and most of all himself – needed to shift his writer's block.
"Wifey Redux" is a wincingly funny story of "a happy marriage" that, it slowly leaks out, has turned sour. Barry nails the queasiness of a man whose wife isn't quite the adorable creature she was at 17 – but whose daughter very much is: "It's just one of those things you're supposed to keep shtum about. Horribly often, our beautiful, perfect daughters emerge into a perfect facsimile of how our beautiful, desirable wives had been, back then, when they were young. And slim. And sober." He's howlingly tormented by the thought of his daughter giving blowjobs to local lads, and the ensuing bluster and discomfort builds to an act of comically cathartic revenge on an inanimate object.
"Wifey Redux" manages to be blistering, a bit ridiculous and pathos-ridden, and it's when blending these qualities that Barry's yarns are at their very best.
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