That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry, review: stories of solitude that are far from glum

Jake Kerridge
·2 min read
Christ in the Wilderness, 1898
Christ in the Wilderness, 1898

It can be hard to differentiate the lonely middle-aged men, mostly living under the dour tutelage of the Ox Mountains in Co Sligo, who trudge through Kevin Barry’s third collection of short stories. “I had consciously pulled away from my old friends,” says the narrator of one. Of the protagonist of another, we’re told: “He had pulled back from his friends … which wasn’t much of a job, for he had never had close ones.”

What makes each story memorable is the way in which that loneliness is intruded upon, for good or ill. A man and his elderly mother entering a pub “like a squall of hectic weather” unwittingly bring the depressed landlord to breaking point; another character faces ruin when he’s targeted by a girl determined to lose her virginity before her 18th birthday. Others, however, find that the trespassers on their solitude bring benign changes.

Barry often writes with sonorous wisdom (“Love … is not about staring into each other’s eyes; love is about staring out together in the same direction, even if the gaze has menace or badness underlain”). But as readers of his grimly hilarious novels (including City of Bohane and the Booker-longlisted Night Boat to Tangier) will know, his language is just as precise when it is in the service of comedy. A list of the self-inflicted misfortunes of one drunken character ends: “he fell out of a hotel one time and landed on a taxi”. How incalculably less funny that would be if he’d written “hotel window” as everybody else would.

A couple of the stories don’t come off, including the title piece, told, for a change, from the viewpoint of a 17-year-old girl: Barry’s attempt to mix his own eloquent idiom with one suitable for her doesn’t quite work. But give him a Sligo sad-sack and he’ll get the register just right, spinning exhilaratingly funny and poignant fables from quotidian misery.