Those old country music stories of loneliness that are anything but...

Those old country music stories of loneliness that are anything but...
Those old country music stories of loneliness that are anything but...
It can be difficult to tell apart the lonely middle-aged men, who mostly live under the grumpy guidance of the Ox Mountains in Co Sligo, trudging through Kevin Barry’s third collection of short stories. “I had consciously withdrawn from my old friends,” says the narrator of one. We are told about someone else’s protagonist: “He had withdrawn from his friends … which was not a big task, because he had never been close.”

What makes any story memorable is the way that loneliness is compromised for better or for worse. A man and his elderly mother enter a pub “like a thunderstorm”, unintentionally bringing the depressed landlord to the breaking point; Another character faces ruin when he is attacked by a girl determined to lose her virginity before her 18th birthday. However, others find that the intruders bring benevolent changes in their solitude.

Barry often writes with sonorous wisdom (“Love … is not about staring into each other’s eyes; love is about staring in the same direction together, even if the gaze is based on threat or wickedness”). But as readers of his grimly hilarious novels (including the City of Bohane and Booker’s Listed Night Boat to Tangier) will know, his language is just as precise when in the service of comedy. A list of self-inflicted accidents of a drunken character ends: “He once fell out of a hotel and ended up in a taxi”. How incalculably less funny it would be if he had written “hotel windows” like everyone else.

Some of the stories, including the title track, don’t come out from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl for a change: Barry’s attempt to mix his own eloquent idiom with one that is right for her fails quite a job. But give him a sligo sack and he’ll get the register spot on, twisting excitingly funny and poignant fables out of everyday misery.

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