SHORT STORIES IN FOCUS – Fjord of Killary (Kevin Barry)

In Ireland Kevin Barry has managed to acquire the reputational equivalent of dual citizenship. On the one hand he is cheered as a kind of literary outlaw, the roguish author of the dystopian Irish-western City of Bohane, and the postmodernish John Lennon tale Beatlebone, the louche and possibly dangerous anti-hero who eschews all the mannerisms of bland, pastoral realism, choosing instead simply to ‘fuck with the English sentence’; on the other, he is the respected man of letters who writes radio plays for RTÉ and inoffensive book reviews for the English papers, who is known to edit the occasional arts anthology, the old-fashioned craftsman whose rude but sentimental fiction has won him a shelf-breaking number of mainstream prizes, and furthermore – in a country with a fairly consistent record of banning and censoring (not to mention ignoring) all of its finest literature – has earned him the perhaps dubious privilege of being the only well-known writer never to have received a bad review, or even a mediocre one.

‘Fjord of Killary’, originally published in the New Yorker and collected in Dark Lies The Island, is interesting in this regard. Over the course of its twenty or so pages Barry’s two selves collide, with unfortunate results. The brave and original elements of his prose-personality begin to buckle very early on, and eventually give way to his opposing desire for neat coherence, for easy, quirky entertainment, and, at the close, for wrapping things up painlessly and mindlessly in A Grand Epiphany that feels unearned and awkward, as well as a touch desperate, like a boy going for a kiss at the end of an bad date.

Our narrator is Caoimhin, a forty-year-old poet from ‘the city’ (probably Dublin) who decides, after a long period of creative impotence, to buy himself a hotel on Ireland’s famously turbulent Atlantic Coast, a region of ‘disgracefully grey skies’ and ‘violent’ rain. The hotel, blandly named “Water’s Edge”, appeals to his dormant romantic sensibility; it is over three-hundred years old, enchantingly decrepit, and it bears a touch of literary distinction, having once been visited by W.M. Thackery. The ‘gaunt, looming shape’ of Mweelrea, Connaught’s tallest mountain (rising to the transcendent height of 814 metres), is visible from every window. In typical romantic fashion, Caoimhin pictures himself fixing the place up and dealing with a coterie of interesting guests in between bursts of smooth poetic composition. But, as one would expect, things do not quite turn out that way. The menial errands begin to accumulate (while the poems decidedly do not), and the very few visitors who end up waddling through the doors of the Water’s Edge are not interesting or exotic travellers; they are all locals – simpletons, eccentrics, depressives – a pack of ‘maudlin bastards’. The hotel bar, where most of the story takes place, becomes a kind of pilgrimage site for some of the more perplexed and perplexing denizens of the Galway-Mayo region, including a man, wonderfully named Bill Knott, who has a near-pathological obsession with roads and distances, or ‘how far one place was from another’. Our narrator, leaning sulkily against the lager taps, listens to their blather with a mixture of disgust and baffled amusement for pages on end. Then one dark and stormy night the tide begins to rise and the sky goes “weirdin’ over” and it appears that Caoimhin’s latest acquisition, along with everyone inside it, is poised for a sodden death.

Barry has always been good at unearthing seductive, high-concept premises for his tales. Another one in Dark Lies the Island, entitled ‘Ernestine and Kit’, follows two auld dears into a family restaurant as they attempt to kidnap a child. Plot-wise, ‘Fjord of Killary’, as with ‘Ernestine and Kit’, essentially sounds like a horror film. In fact, its central concept (writer moves in to an old hotel, weird things start happening) sounds remarkably like one very well-known horror film, which Barry cleverly acknowledges in the form of a joke. Upon announcing his plan to acquire the Water’s Edge, the narrator says “All my friends, every last one of them, said ‘The Shining’”.

And, indeed, Barry seems at first to be taking stylistic cues from that extraordinary film. The eeriness of the setting is established with wonderful speed and skill. Very early on, the narrator illustrates a central flaw in the hotel’s structure; the whole building is crooked, it leans gothically towards the ocean:

Set a can of peas on the floor of just about any bedroom and it would roll slowly in the direction of the gibbering Atlantic.

Apparently not much on the surface, this is in fact a brilliant little piece of writing. It has a quiet, delirious force, derived from the combination of that one oddly specific detail (“a can of peas” instead of just, say, “a tin” or “a can”) with the alliteration of “roll slowly” (itself slowing the sentence down). The unusual pairing at the end, “gibbering Atlantic”, gives the sentence an authentic flavour of madness, a subtle hint of mental disarray, as if the narrator can’t keep the ocean’s troubling music out of his thoughts.

Barry, unfortunately, does not sustain this degree of subtlety throughout the story. Almost immediately, in fact, he dispenses of it, along with the atmosphere he has so ably and swiftly conjured – the mountain views, the crooked floors, the Atlantic’s ghostly pull. There is a delicious out-of-jointness, a cool suggestion of malignancy in the sentence I have quoted above that is entirely absent elsewhere. Later, when Barry wants to conjure up a bit of mood in between his stacks of dialogue, he will eschew suggestion in favour of undemanding statement. At one point Caoimhin notices ‘the vast schizophrenic sky’, a phrase which might have worked in another context but falls flat here. Instead of representing the twitches and tics of real schizophrenia, Barry is happier to simply – and, I think, carelessly – splash down that big, loaded word schizophrenic. The result feels strained, a little juvenile, and fundamentally sane, not schizophrenic at all.

Fjord of Killary is full of dark, glamorous adjectives like ‘murderous’ and ‘schizophrenic’. In its pages we also find ‘insane’, ‘funereal’, ‘hypochondriacal’, ‘paganistic’, ‘biblical’, and ‘unreal’. These are rich words, money words, and Barry’s reckless spending only deflates their currency. He has said in interviews that his influences extend to video games, pop songs, and TV. Based on the evidence here, I don’t doubt it. His prose has the harsh clamour of a child at a piano; sometimes a lovely, broken melody will emerge, but mostly he’s just thumping on the keys. Over and over he privileges the immediacy of vivid noise over the slower beauties of acuity, control, delicacy and grace.

Barry’s default mode is a certain kind of overripe lyricism, mingled with local slang. And he is admired for it. Darragh McManus, in a review of Dark Lies the Island, wrote, “the prose flows like the best late-night pub conversation you ever had, but always with quality control: anything that reads this well was hard-earned.” This doesn’t at all describe the effect of Barry’s writing, and very little – in ‘Fjord of Killary’, anyway – feels “hard-earned”; but what would you expect from someone who puts the word ‘flows’ after the word ‘prose’? To me, Barry’s style is more performative than conversational. Sometimes he sounds like John Banville at his more lugubrious, if John Banville had a foul mouth and replaced his copy of Lolita with a boxset of Tommy Tiernan’s live shows. Luckily, for him and for us, there is a much stronger force at work in the story, and this is what rescues it from failure. Indeed, the descriptive prose, as the reader becomes increasingly aware, is there to serve only as a kind of atmospheric smoke, swirling about in the background while Barry attends to the story’s true raison d’etre – its dialogue.

Even more than his “hard-earned” expository style, Barry is celebrated for his dialogue; this time rightly so. He has a good ear for the various ways in which the Irish mangle speech into messy, sometimes incomprehensible word-concoctions, and the most original element of ‘Fjord of Killary’ lies in Barry’s presentation of these odd little verbal gems. Bits of talk, monologues directed into pint-glasses, rants, arguments and reveries: all are captured in contextless fragments by the narrator, and delivered as surreal non-sequiturs, perfectly mirroring the blur of voices one encounters in just about any Irish drinking establishment. Eventually these voices seem to blend into a single lachrymose song, shifting delightfully from the prurient to the obscene, the paranoid to the melancholic, the hateful to the tender. We have Mr John Murphy, who believes his wife is trying to murder him (‘She’s fuckin’ poisoning me! I swear to bleedin’ fuckin’ Jesus! I can taste it off the tea, Caoimh!’), and then, a few lines down, Mr Mick Harty, “distributor of bull semen in the vicinity”, who has recently encountered tiramisu for the first time (‘You wouldn’t know whether to eat it or smear it all over yourself’), and then this decidedly odd snippet:

‘They can cut out that particular gland,’ Bill Knott said, ‘but if the wound goes septic after?’

He shook his head hopelessly.

‘That,’ he said, ‘is when the fun and games start.’

Barry is an entertainer, a comedian. He is also maddeningly conventional. One of the more disappointing things about Fjord of Killary is just how quickly it establishes a formula for success, and how doggedly it adheres to that formula. In the first couple of pages a few running jokes are set up, which are revisited refrainlike over and over again as the story proceeds. Gradually it becomes clear that Barry’s relationship with his material exists on just one plain; he wants to squeeze out as much comic juice as possible. His formula, on close reading, becomes all too clear; the story is structured after a sitcom. What starts out like a dark mind-journey modelled on The Shining instead rolls slowly in the direction of Fawlty Towers. Or Fawlty Towers without the unforgettable comedy. And so we get, predictably enough, dotty regulars, poorly motivated employees with bad English, and a few jokes about the rain (“Local opinion, cheerfully, was that it had been among the wettest bank holidays ever witnessed”; “Visibilty was reduced to fourteen feet… the west of Ireland holiday season had begun”)

I have already mentioned Bill Knott, the amusing local who cannot quite bring himself to talk about anything other than ‘roads, mileage, general directions’. He makes his first appearance on the third page, interrupting a conversation to ask ‘what’d we be talking about for Belmullet, would you say? Off a slow road?’ He goes on to say, in small variations, the same thing another eight times. At some point, Bill Knott stops feeling like a real character with real obsessions; he becomes, in essence, a walking, drinking catchphrase.

Another gag involves Caoimhin’s Belarusian staff. There is a ‘pack’ of them, and their only objective in the story is to fuck each other ‘at all angles of the clock’ (All angles of the clock, by the way, is a very nice phrase, but here we have a case of self-plagiarism: Barry already used it in City of Bohane). Immediately it is clear that we are not meant to care about them or be interested in them; they exist to say things in funny Eastern European accents (“‘Is otter in kitchen!’ she said”), and also to have sex within earshot of Caoimhin, so that he can say, in mock-disgust, ‘my sleepless nights were filled the sounds of their rotating passions,’ and ‘they were apparently feasting delightedly on each other in my back rooms’, and so on, and so on.

These little running jokes are touched on neatly at the end (Bill Knott making one last enquiry about directions, the Belarusians having one last dry-hump in the corner of a ballroom), just in time for Caoimhin’s big, fat, lyrically-ribboned Grand Epiphany.

Caoimhin, it must be said, is as feeble an invention as the rest of the characters. His role is two-fold: he sneers at his customers, and he describes the storm outside in neatly placed packets of lyricism. He is afforded a few bland memories of his days in the city, but the reader never gets the sense of a real mind at work. If there was ever a narrator not made for a Dubliners-style epiphany, it is he. For the big finale, Barry makes use of another sitcom trope. Having been moved to an upstairs function room, all of the characters put their anxieties on hold to enjoy one last dance (cue credits and advertisements). Caoimhin joins them, dancing “in great, wet-eyed nostalgia to ‘Brass in Pocket’”, then he retreats from the action to look out the window at the flood, and to indulge in a moment of revelation (“the view was suddenly clear to me”). He decides that “at forty, one must learn the rigours of acceptance. Capitalise it: Acceptance”. He goes on to list the various ways in which he will embrace acceptance – sorry, Acceptance – until he dies. And, surprise, surprise, this moment of insight immediately undoes his writer’s block. “The gloom of youth had at last lifted,” he declares, and goes searching for a notebook. So ‘Fjord of Killary’ comes to its whimpering conclusion. There is a kind of sadness in these last lines, not Caoimhin’s, but Kevin’s. One feels he has realized just how unsophisticated his enterprise has been, and, uncomfortably, has tried to give it a bit of emotional resonance. The result is catastrophic: too much in the way of feeling, and yet at the same time, not enough.

In the end, ‘Fjord of Killary’ cannot escape what it is. It is simply a collection of sex jokes, vomit jokes, pratfalls, catchphrases, and silly, ignorant people saying silly, ignorant things, sprinkled with passages of melodramatic prose. Doubtlessly it will entertain and amuse, but it is finally haunted by all the things that it is not. The author’s transparent last-minute attempt to invest his story with something other than noise and whimsy only accents and highlights the absence.

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