Book review: Town & Country: New Irish Short Stories edited by Kevin Barry

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IRISH short stories (pause to genuflect) have enjoyed a constantly starry reputation since the heady days of the early 20th century.

Town & Country: New Irish Short Stories

edited by Kevin Barry

Faber, 348pp, £9.99

Kicking off with the Os – O’Connor, O’Flaherty, O’Casey, O’Faolain – Mary Lavin, the unsung Kiely, consummate Trevor, peerless McGahern, the two McLavertys (unrelated, different spellings), Hogan, Enright and Claire Keegan – any list must omit far more than it includes – industrial surpluses of talent, lean and fat, ready to tantalise (all tastes catered for), an incontinent babble of voices in different accents, none undersold.

Kevin Barry, no short-story slouch himself, maintains the inflation rate in a trumpeting introduction to Town & Country which he has edited: “A great story can take all the air out of a room … A great story can delineate the critical moments of a life … they are moments with the clarity and amplitude of hallucination, and they are found in the stories of this book.” That’s putting it up to them, as they say.

He launches the 20-story collection with a banker: Dermot Healy, one of the “names”, whose story, “Images”, grips from the start as Jack, a lecturer, now retired, totes his camera around the ruins of a village, watched by Jennifer, his chauffeur, as he photographs the past, a distrait seer of the ilk of Iain Crichton Smith’s alter ego, Murdo, folly and wisdom inextricable: “Mortality is rife,” he bemoans, catching sight of a blaze of fresh daffodils. Later, he hears a dead piano playing tunes, the ghosts of its heyday, reborn in a swirl of imagination. Transcendental.

The other maverick here, Desmond Hogan, is equally quicksilver, spiky, bracing, in “Brimstone Butterfly”, less a story than a headache of non sequiturs and jump-cuts: scenes from Croatia, scenes from Ireland, shards of narrative pulled from the shredder of Hogan’s subconscious, from atrocity in Zagreb to tattooing in Portrush, gimlet-eyed images, rather than fiction, stylistically fearless, making rubble of English syntax and yet, miraculously producing a prose that’s scintillatingly elegant.

Some of the rest are, to use a phrase of Samuel Beckett’s, “fair to middling”. “The Ladder”, by Sheila Purdy, the tale of an office girl, going neither up nor down in her career, is at best inconspicuous. Stasis likewise afflicts the self-dismaying narrator of Michael Harding’s flat-lining “Tiger”, and freezes the tendons of connection between the out-of-kilter anniversary couple in “Barcelona”. Fractured relationships are plentiful, though rarely are they moving. An Irish chef and his Spanish boyfriend in “The Second-Best Bar in Cadiz” by Andrew Meehan, fuel their lives with food, drugs and drama, meanwhile fate is shifting the furniture, unseen, behind their backs.

Facing fate head-on are the voices in “Paper and Ashes”, by William Wall, and Paul Murray’s “How I Beat the Devil”, the former – perhaps the most economical tale in the book, providing by far its best last line as a widow tips her husband’s ashes into oblivion, while, in the latter, the comic invention never flags, and the Devil succumbs to the moral requirements of an ordinary existence.

Existence as a theme – that hoary chestnut, existentialism – rears up in several tales, sometimes bafflingly. Greg Baxter’s (almost epic and might have been brilliant) “The Mark of Death” offers us this: “At this moment, who you are and what you are thinking is the multi-forked ballistic trajectory of your life, and it is tumbling into the amnesiac darkness of the crowd…”

Thankfully, other stories soar without much effort. “Joyride to Jupiter”, perfectly pitched, a tender love story by the gifted Nuala Ni Chonchuir, is the pre-eminent example, telling its tale of a couple’s cruel disintegration, held somehow together by selfless love, producing an ending that is excruciatingly moving. Keith Ridgeway’s “Godigums” is another tour de force, in which a wanderer comes home transformed, almost devilish, tattooed, with a twitching tail between his legs. The art of concealment is his forte; his unmasking brings him down.

Too many literary references too often dog certain stories. Pat McCabe turns in a predictable performance unveiling a young man’s coming of age, while Lisa McInerney rescues her ambitious “Saturday Boring” after a far too self-conscious opening full of limp similes.

Town & Country flaunts its diversity. The “great, mad and rude new energies” Barry touts in his introduction are certainly present. At its best, this collection sings as well as soars. An unruly chorus of unalike minds.