Book review: Dark Lies The Island

In almost every one of these scintillating stories, a man cries. Or rather, he is reduced to tears, partly out of immense reserves of self-pity and partly because, as the narrator of The Girls And The Dogs puts it, “it makes me frightened just to think of her walking around in the world with the people that are out there.

See some of the f***ers you’d have muttering at the walls down the bus station in Parnell Place, Cork. You’d want a daughter breathing the same air as those animals?”

The narrator’s moral certainty is somewhat compromised since he’s locked in a caravan until he agrees to a ménage à quatre, and is a drug dealer of some repute, if not renown, and an obvious spinner of yarns.

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Barry’s short stories manage to combine a lilt of sentence with a punch of meaning. His work shuffles, scowls and chances its way towards each ending, where the opaque nature of other human beings collides with the generous awareness that we are all, in our scuffed-up-ways, other human beings. Ever since Joyce, the paradigm of the short story has been the epiphany, the moment of understanding. With Barry’s work, we get the pause before anyone can understand anything in a fundamentally incomprehensible universe. With jokes.

Barry’s humour is the saving grace of his characters and the savage sadness he evokes in the reader. As readers we are encouraged to laugh, and feel the hollowness of our laughter.

In Wifey Redux, Barry choreographs a series of revelations purportedly just about the male narrator’s crisis that his daughter might be having sex – by the way, this is an anxiety the Irish do well: Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is an insane riff on the theme, where daughter and laughter rhyme in a frightening fashion the whole time.

But in Barry’s story, he slowly reveals the surprising extent of one man’s trauma, despite surface affluence and past happiness. There is a political dimension to this, and it’s not about the toothlessness of a once Tiger Economy.

It’s fundamentally about ingrained ideas and how to excavate them. What is decency? What is community? What turns a male into a man? But there is more ostensible politics as well: The Mainland Campaign. “If they were the mainland, we were what?” muses the narrator.

A Beer Trip To Llandudno encapsulates Barry’s style. A group of real ale drinkers head to Wales, where there is a constant humour in the pub names – The Crippled Ox, The Mangy Otter and so on. The men have developed their own ten-point scoring system, rather than the normal five-point one, and the idea of how to calibrate and judge experience is one of the themes: exactly what differentiates a six from a seven? There are two narrative instances. One of the men comes across an ex-girlfriend he has not seen in decades. The narrator, for all his affability and bonhomie, gradually reveals the failings and upsets that have led him to this place.

There is a perfect poise at the ending, between being explicit and being oblique: “and alewards we went about the familiar streets. The town was in carnival: Tropic of Lancashire in a July swelter. It would not last. There was rain due in off the Irish Sea, and not for the first time”.

The most surreal story, Fjord Of Killary pits a blocked poet-turned-pub manager against “magnificent mood swings” of the locals and the weirdly “gibbering” sea. As the tide rises, the group of hardened drinkers move from disbelief to disco in a perfect metaphor of how any human being copes with mortality. Ernestine And Kit is a piece of contemporary gothic with a troubling conclusion.

Throughout, Barry’s language is intense, precise, given to delightful swerves and with pitch perfect dialogue. Unexpected joy is always close: threat is always closer in these superlative stories.

• Dark Lies The Island

Kevin Barry

Jonathan Cape, £12.99