Sometimes you can judge a book by its color palette. Dark Lies the Island, Kevin Barry’s second story collection, represents the author’s, and Ireland’s, black-and-blue period. Bruised with all the more painful colors of the rainbow, its people give out “yellow screams” and suffer from “purple exhaustion.” The sky hangs “disgracefully grey” over the “gibbering Atlantic,” pouring down enough heat to melt the tarmac and enough rain to drive the coastal creatures into the hills. In the title story, a young woman retreats into the bog-side home her architect-father built. Sitting in “a pool of grey-blue light thrown by the screen,” she fights the urge to cut herself, something she does “for the red vibrancy, for feeling, see the royal red army marching jagged lines down the pale hillside.” These stories are, like the smaller islands she sees in the distance, “inky blobs of mood against grey water.” The color scheme of green-clad leprechaun joy this is not. This is a collection and a country and a people “depress,” with children “belting around like maniacs” and spouses with “mad thyroidal eyes.” Beware anyone in these stories sporting a serene smile. You’d be mad to grin in Barry’s portrait-of-the-country-as-a-manic-depressive.
Barry’s 2011 novel, City of Bohane, with its assorted tribes warring in a dystopian future Irish township, packed a hyperbolic Gangs of New York feel, and the mobs are out in force here again. The nouveau riche standing barefoot on limestone kitchen flags eating muesli. The old-school poor slumming low in houses with “giant mushroomy damp patches coming through the old wallpaper and a huge fireplace in the main room burning smashed-up chairs and bits of four-be-two.” Hopeless-romantic-poets-cum-B&B-remodelers. Swinging, pill-popping knackers. New recruits for the IRA. Toddlers with “no strength left to cry,” teenagers with hearts “opened and [taking] in every black poison the morning could offer,” the middle-aged with their gently thickening waists and their crises of mid-life faith, even a pair of sexagenarians making “ground through north County Sligo in a neat Japanese car.” And all of them driven half-or-all-mad and self-medicating the best they can. Craft beer and swill, meth and pills, fine cheese and wine. Nearly every character is deep in their cup of choice, besotted with a medley of substances. “The black hole of the night before us – it wanted filling,” as one beer-connoisseur puts it in “Beer Trip to Llandudno.”
If this motley catalogue has popped a can or twelve, you can hardly blame them. They’ve got money troubles, love troubles, hunger-for-child-flesh troubles, a sodden stew of dilemmas, a great mess of “hard times.” “That was the start of the trouble,” one decries. This is “the story of how the trouble started,” another bemoans. Absent any crisis supplied upfront, they grow “bored enough for badness.” They may start in the pub or on the road, but they end up in the bog-side ditch. It becomes a kind of routine, this quiet grinding pace toward leering calamity and painfully epiphanic reveals, so that even in the most benign summer drive or the most lyric and romanticized of West Ireland hotels, you know something will go awry. The mild ominousness of an old woman’s “high colour of a carnivore.” The perverse subtext of a bunch of fleshy beer lovers noting “a clutch of young girls in their summer skimpies.” It’ll all pay out. The shadows Barry places in the foreground will cast their darkness by story’s end.
While the story is veering bogward, Barry’s prose is steering toward idioms unknown. In one paragraph a poet-narrator might describe how “the sky had shucked the last of its evening grey to take on an intense purplish tone that was ominous, close-in, biblical” but in the next he announces “Sky is weirdin’ up like I don’t know fucking what.” It’s code-switching almost, the prose all decked in its finest frocks and the dialogue streaking by in only its yellow-stained undershirt. As often as not the syntax is inverted, which to an American ear might sound slightly arch: consider “rubbed nervously a frayed tweed elbow,” the adverb old-school hanging between the verb and its object; or “from the tube station the roar of the ascending crowd,” which not only pushes the prepositional phrase into the lead but also artfully omits the verb. With his syntax shifted into place, Barry sets about mashing together words it wouldn’t occur to most to mash. Just as one narrator’s “sleepless nights” are filled with the sound of his staff’s “rotating passions,” so too are our clichéd expectations from “sleepless nights” playfully subverted by “rotating passions.” And when children are “laden with trinkets and jaunty with menace,” our brain’s rhetorical centers light up Yule-like. What does it mean to be jaunty with menace? And isn’t it pleasant how “laden” is paired with the concrete “trinkets” but “jaunty” is paired with the abstract “menace”? All those out-of-towner adjectives shacking up with the local nouns. There’s an impolitic decadence to how Barry couples his words. When the main character of “The Mainland Campaign” derides the nordy sleeping with his mum for requesting Elmore Leonard and John D. MacDonald, it reads as a repudiation of bare-bones prose, an advocacy for the lush.
The end goal of all these troubles and all this lyricism seems to be to push Barry’s characters through the strainer of their troubles and out into bittersweet feeling. As one Irish boy puts it to his German paramour, “Ireland is magical,” “England is ironical.” It’s a heavy burden to put on a place, to call it magical, but that’s how Barry paints it. He ferries his characters through this enchanted land and toward the “rare occasion for truly felt speech in contemporary life,” because they are “trapped in the glaring wash of irony” and he wants them submerged in the warm bathwater of feeling. To get them there, he has to break them, as if each story is a microcosm of the epic speech the narrator in “Wifey Redux” delivers in the aisle of a home supply store to the rugby boy who’s dared to break his daughter’s heart:
I slapped him once across the face. It was a manic shot with plenty of sting to it. I told him of youth’s fleeting nature. I told him he didn’t realize how quickly all this would pass. I told him how it had been for me. I spoke of the darknesses that can so quickly seep between the cracks of a life. I told him of the images I had witnessed and voices I had heard. He began to cry in fear. I told him how my Wifey had been plagued by evil faeries in the night—oh it was all coming out!—and how my Ellie was to me a deity to be worshipped, and I would protect her with my life.
‘I have type 1 diabetes!’ he sobbed. ‘I can’t deal with this shit!’
Oh but I laid it on with a motherfucking trowel. I brought him to the pits of despair and showed him around. My threats were veiled and made stronger by the serenity of my smile.
He then steals a hammer and takes it to the “!” from the store’s sign until it cracks and grows “a beautiful mosaic in the blue […], like the trace of tiny backroads on an old map – marking out lost fields, lost kingdoms, a lost world” and he feels as “serene as a bird riding the swells of morning air over those fields.” It might seem odd to speak of drug dealers and middle-aged new-money types as having innocence to be lost, but these stories reveal that no matter what age a person is at or which rung of the social ladder they’re perched upon, they contain the potential to crack up like that sign and emerge out the other side of their story with a lesson in hand, as tremulous and hesitantly hopeful as a newborn chick. They will stand, like the narrator of “The Girls and the Dogs”, “at a high vantage point,” above the lights of their city, feeling, as the poet of “Fjord of Killary” does, “the rigours of acceptance.”
Dark Lies the Island begins and ends on stories in which women teach men lessons: at the front we have the invocational “Across the Rooftops,” about a girl who leaves a boy on the roof of an apartment building “with youth packed away and life about to begin”; at the close we have the elegaic “Berlin Akronaplatz—My Lesbian Summer,” in which a punk-as-shit lesbian love interest declares “Patrick, I am going to teach you everything you need to know about the female genitalia.” Finding things bookended this way, it would
Framed as it is by stories in which women teach men lessons (be easy to cook up some half-baked analysis and abstract the women in Dark Lies the Island into embodiments of their countries, Lady Eyre announcing that the Celtic Tiger is finished, time for the boats and the planes again, and Frau Germany reminding them their residency in her crotch is only temporary. Once you were done there, you could easily tie all the tropes of Barry’s collection back to Joyce and his Dubliners. Everywhere here we have the ghost of Joycean past, the people of “The Dead” gathering for a party as a storm closes in: the alcoholic funeral director is there, the bull semen distributor is there, the poet is there, grotesque death and even more grotesque life and the most-grotesque-of-all chronicler. But I’ll leave the analysis to someone more patient and thorough. Suffice it to say this is a dark collection, with Ireland’s people either fleeing the country or burrowing deeper into the grim niches of its lonelier counties, with their friends “dead dead dead” or “gone to England.” Each character speaks of their private slice of the country, and studied all together it produces something of a panorama. It’s a dark-hued landscape and “the iodine tang of kelp” in the air might put you “in the mind of embalming fluid,” but so too is there a deeply felt sense of the cyclical nature of Ireland’s history. There’s something both world-weary and life-affirming to Barry’s darkness. What is it the drunk declares at the end of “Beer Trip to Llandudno”? “There was rain due in off the Irish Sea, and not for the first time.”