Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 21 May 2022

"That old country music" by Kevin Barry (Canongate, 2021)

Stories from New Yorker, Irish Times, etc. I wasn't impressed by any of them. The dialogue's jolly enough I suppose.

  • The coast of Leitrim - Quiet Seamus (unemployed, no relatives), 35, likes a Polish waitress. As a first date he drives her in his van to the coast and they sleep together. Soon she moves in. Bliss. When she mumbles in her sleep he gets an app to translate it - "I'll die if you ever leave me". His self-doubt sours the love. She leaves the cottage then later the country. He flies to Poland to find her. He tracks her down in a cybercafe in her home-town. Didn't grab me.
  • Dear season - She want to lose her virginity before she's 18. One week to go. She identifies a man, a quiet loner, about 30. She has sex with him twice before returning to boarding school. Her father is furious when he finds out. The loner leaves town. When she returns she visits the loner's bungalow and stays for hours. A young deer comes and goes. "She reached out for him in the dark. When she at last rose to go she was stiff from the cold and felt many years older." No.
  • Ox mountain death song - Sergeant Brown, retiring in 3 weeks, wants to arrest Canavan (womanizer, petty thief) for something. He discovers that Canavan has terminal cancer, which makes him more dangerous. Brown tracks Canavan down using instinct, pushes him off a cliff. I don't get the final paragraph.
  • Old stock - The narrator needs a break. He hears that his great uncle Arno, 80+, is about to die in Donagal. On his deathbed Arno says that his cottage is an aphrodisiac to women. The narrator inherits it, falls in love with the surrounding countryside, wears Arno's cap - "I began to get the sense that life is not much more than an inch or two deep really - how you display the surface of things can dictate all else". A young female solicitor visits. An hour later they're in bed. A second meeting in town fails. A passing female hiker enters his cottage and seduces him. Suddenly we're told that he is about to deliver his third novel. He decides that "To face myself I would have to leave him go. I would have to move on again". There's a hint at the end that he might be Arno's son.
  • Saint Catherine of the fields - The narrator (50+, coming out of a relationship where the woman returned to her wife) collects old Irish songs. He hears about an expert, Jackson, tracking him down to a nursing home. He's senile, 96. He sings a long song (pre 20th century?) that the narrator records. The rest of the story recounts the lyrics - how a woman seduces a lonely herdsman then reveals that her husband knows all about it - she did it for him.
  • Toronto and the state of grace - The publican, Alan, has 2 late customers on a quiet day - Tony and his mother. They both work their way along the row of spirits, chatting to each other as they go - witty, sometimes barbed banter. She stands up and dies. Waiting for the ambulance Tony continues drinking. Eventually alone, Alan drinks and takes a walk to the beach.
  • Who's-dead McCarthy - Con McCarthy walks up and down O'Connell Street telling people who's died and how. When he died, the narrator took over. My favourite so far.
  • Roma kid - A 9 year-old leaves her family and sneaks onto a train. She goes into a wood. An old man finds her and brings her up in his trailer in the wood, teaches her English. When he dies, she takes over.
  • Extremadura (until night falls) - a homeless Irish guy (first-person) walks through a Spanish town at sunset, sees a dog, sees a girl, a boy, an old man. The dog talks to him. He still misses a past love. Not a good piece.
  • The old country music - Dawn. Hanna (17 years old, 4 months pregnant) and Setanta (32, a tattoo artist, about to rob a petrol station, used to be engaged to Hanna's mother) are engaged. Hanna (her third-person PoV) is waiting in the getaway van. She realises that Setanta has left her. Her mother arrives to comfort her.
  • Roethke in the bughouse - The poet Roethke had a breakdown while in Ireland. In this first-person piece Roethke is in a psychiatric hospital being interviews by a doctor. The doctor plays along with Roethke's fanciful analogies, colourfully expressed. Maybe this is my favourite piece.

Other reviews

  • Hephzibah Anderson (passion proves hazardous for the loners and oddballs who drift through Barry’s forceful landscape.)
  • Justine Jordan (Barry holds myth-making and dull reality in teasing balance, with a kind of comic double vision winking at the operatic and the bathetic by turns ... This battle between long-term loneliness and the urge for love showcases what Barry does so well, effortlessly shifting narrative gear from the casually omniscient ... to a howl of interior pain)
  • Michael Schaub (There's not a bad story in the bunch, and it's as accomplished a book as Barry has ever written. ... Barry has a rare gift for crafting characters the reader cares about despite their flaws)
  • John Michaud (A few of the entries here amount to less than fully developed stories. “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” is a character sketch about a Limerick man who is a walking, talking obituary page, a “connoisseur of death.” “Extremadura (Until Night Falls)” is narrated by a ghostly spirit wandering the west of Ireland. These slighter stories sustain the thematic cohesion of the book while offering a change of tone and pace. They are the mortar between the bricks. )
  • Naoise Dolan (That Old Country Music asks where artists get ideas, and what they should do with them. The characters live mostly in the west of Ireland, with the odd urban interlude and Extremadura for witches (why not?). Only some are aware they’re trying to make something, but they all must reckon with their surroundings and invest themselves in outcomes they cannot control. It’s a bit like love ... Often Barry gives away the plot up front so we can focus on characters, sunsets, what’s said and what’s not.)

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