Punch and Poetry: Slàinte to New Irish Fiction

What’s happening on the Emerald Isles? Two new books, one short stories and the other a detective novel without a resolution, to the new fiction being written by Irish writers. By Andrew Fox.

The short story was the weapon of choice for a generation of Irish writers—including Seán Ó’Faoláin, Frank O’Connor, and Liam O’Flaherty—many of whom had fought for the Republican cause in both the War of Independence and the Civil War, only to see their ideals defeated by the conservatism and social compression that marked the early years of the Irish state. It was in the face of these challenges during the 1930s and 40s, wrote Ó’Faoláin, that a form defined by its brevity and its inconclusiveness presented to Irish writers that most important though unlikeliest of things—an opportunity to arrive at an original “personality.”

Haunted by history and scathing of the present, these writers forged a literature which, as the critic Heather Ingman writes, “seems to perceive the inadequacy of quotidian reality,” a literature, that is, “open to the future but containing traces of past identities.” The parochial isle to which Ó’Faoláin and his contemporaries were reacting may have officially ceded ground to today’s cosmopolitan European state, but political cronyism, dodgy financial dealings, and disclosures of abuses perpetrated in Church-run reform and industrial schools continue to betray the inadequacies of Irish reality. As the past few decades have rocked to boom and quaked from bust, Irish short story writers have persisted in wringing, as Ó’Faoláin desired, both “punch” and “poetry” not only from the radical rearrangements but also from the stubborn constancies of Irish life.

Of the current generation, Kevin Barry demonstrates a personality perhaps most entirely his own. Steeped in the gothic traditions both of the Irish bog and of the American South, and alive always to the ribald possibilities of the conversational voice, his 2007 debut There Are Little Kingdoms managed at once to be both daringly new and, as Ingman notes, a book that could have been written during almost any year of the twentieth century. The stories of his second collection, which is just being published in America, Dark Lies the Island, revisit many tropes common to much of Irish literature—small town boredom, mental collapse, drink, sexual frustration—but treats them with a knowing postmodern textuality, the poetry of the artistically shaped often winning out over the direct sensory punch of verisimilitude.

“Ernestine and Kit,” “The Girls and the Dogs,” and the aptly titled “A Cruelty,” share with Barry’s recent novel, City of Bohane, an impressive linguistic dexterity and an overriding sense of gothic malevolence. This last story follows Donie, a young man with characteristics of autism, as he embarks on a simple but highly regimented journey on the 9:33 train from Boyle to Sligo for lunch. It is a journey he makes every day, and which every day is exactly the same—until, that is, Donie meets a dangerous stranger by the Garavogue River. Barry conveys perfectly the inner monologue of compulsion, and it is this sensitive ear, on show also at moments of narrative sweetness and musicality (“The clanky bamp of the last metal step gives way to a softer footfall”), that makes the low beat of the story’s conclusion all the more stingingly felt.

An apocalyptic sensibility and a preoccupation with matters of movement and of navigation inform the strongest stories of Dark Lies the Island. A tale of hobbyism and of male friendship, “Beer Trip to Llandudno” demonstrates Barry’s abiding strength as a documenter of the oftentimes corrupt and corrupting tenderness that grows between men without women. The apocalypse of “Llandudno” is an alcoholic one, as, in part, is that of “Fjord of Killary,” whose protagonist is a failure both as a poet and as the proprietor of a hotel in that location so beloved of the poetically inclined, the Irish West. Overlooking a harbor whose “Every last crooked rock […] had at some point seated the bony arse of some hypochondriacal epiphany-seeker,” an array of local grotesques knock back pints and make “a geography of the country by the naming of pubs” while grousing about the Belarussian immigrants serving drinks. Alongside these new arrivals sit the historical presences of Thackeray and Cromwell, and it is from this miasma of past and present that poetic inspiration comes at last in “predestined rhythms” as the rains come, the harbor floods, and the waters rise.

If navigation is a concern of Barry’s book, it is an obsession of Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, a novel-in-stories or collection-of stories-as-novel that belongs less to any tradition of story writing than to the Irish anti-novel tradition begun with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and given its most lasting iteration in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. The terrain over which the book moves is contemporary London—where Ridgway lived for eleven years—and the genre it inhabits ostensibly is that of the detective novel. It shares with the best noir a robust, minimalistic prose and a keen eye for the telling detail figuratively rendered: “his face [was] the summary of an argument, lined with a lifetime of being right.” Summoned to the scene of a shooting, where they meet unreliable witnesses and unreliable testimony in the form of a victim who identifies his assailant as a vintage car, the eponymous detectives pursue their investigations despite the disintegration of both case and narrative.

Ridgway moves—now gliding, now lurching—to the story of a young pickpocket on the run from his employer, to that of a psychopathic editor in possession of a grizzly manuscript, to that of a teenage girl with a love for art and a yearning for the attentions of her absentee father, to that of a madman obsessed with the crimes both real and imagined of ex-prime minister Tony Blair. A constant though mostly off-stage presence is the underworld boss Mishazzo, who, like literary form, seems now to be pulling every string, now none of them, who remains invisible to the direct gaze but whose shadow crowds the periphery.

As with Barry’s, many of Ridgway’s characters have an imperfect or deteriorating grasp on reality or self, and there is a dreamlike quality to Hawthorne and Child’s sense of causality and connection. The detectives do not solve anything, and the book’s mystery is not the crime with which it begins but the lives that hold it together. It is not the closing of any case that preoccupies the book but the perpetual openness and irresolution of all cases, all identities. That is its punch, its poetry.