Indeed, the problem with the short story is that the form of crafting becomes too revealing. Forced to operate in a cramped compass of about 5,000 words, the writer feels the pressure of every sentence, every word – does it count? Has it earned its place?
And readers, when watching writers tense up under this pressure, also tense up. Thus, the opening of a short story tends to leave everyone involved in self-consciousness, perplexity, acutely sensitive to the quality of the writer’s craft, and thus resistant to irrational attachment. suitable for the characters and plot. The great short story writers are the gentle lullers of this obstacle who transports you to a new world quickly.
Everyone said Chekhov did this best, and everyone was right. The story of Chekhov Grasshopper begins with the line: “All of Olga’s friends and acquaintances were present at her wedding.” Boom: ongoing story. Another famous story Lady with Lapdog, which began like this: “The arrival on the shores of a newcomer – a woman with a pet dog – became the subject of general conversation.” We are good to go.
Whether or not Colin Barrett is a great short story writer (after two slim anthologies, it’s still too early to tell), he is certainly a born short story writer – that is, someone with Excellent thinking in and with the short story genre. His debut collection, Young skin (2014), perhaps a bit overrated, though it is certainly the work of a writer of immense natural gift. There are rough edges in Young skin, and also skillful paragraphs and pages; and overall, perhaps, the feeling that here is a writer who has been filled with energy, for good and for bad, by the example of Kevin Barry, the man who revived the rural short story for a generation of Irish writers.
This isn’t such a bug, but it does raise questions about how well Barrett might sound now that he’s an adult, as he’ll certainly be beyond Barry’s influence and found his own special sense of things – that is, once he found his own short story rhythm.
Homesick, Barrett’s Second Collection, is the answer to this question. Meaning does not mean that when reading the eight stories contained in Homesick Emotionally, I muttered to myself, “This feels a bit like Kevin Barry Country.” No: we are now fully and firmly in Colin Barrett Country, which perhaps adjoins Barry Country, but has its own rhythm and mood, its own sense of human comedy, its own sense of human tragedy.
Barrett is a creative writer – eight short stories in eight years is a low production rate (though for the time being he’s clearly working on a novel, due out next year). He is clearly a prose tinker, a stylist, an artist who pursues excellent nuances, elusive detail. He noticed “reviving nerve fibers” on an arm that had gone to sleep. He observes his characters in their moment of death: “He picks his nose, happily peels off an intact mass of dry matter, touches it between his fingers, and shoves it out.”
Video of the day
He does what Chekhov does – meaning he makes you forget you’re reading a short story – although his beginnings are sometimes a bit stiff in the classic short story style. But then, after one or two paragraphs of slightly cramped prose, the characters come to life, the story moves. Shooting at Rathdreedane, the prologue, is about a female gardening sergeant called to a farm near Ballina, where a farmer named Grehan fatally shoots a local yobbo with a shotgun. It’s beautifully designed, relatable, luxuriously smooth narration.
Roads is about a family of teenagers whose parents have passed away; the three of them were alone in the family house outside Swinford. The story is not about their hurt but about their future, the life they may or may not find a way to lead. The Alps about three mountain brothers, men with odd jobs, striding into an ordinary pub one evening and encountering a young man carrying a replica samurai sword; the mode is dark fiction, with echoes of Tom Murphy and, yes, Kevin Barry.
Silver Coast perhaps the smallest passage in the book – the account of a funeral at a affiliated assembly hall, it speaks of the unknowability of man, the ambiguity of memory. (It does have some great dialogue, though – like the snowy footprints of two characters “roaming in a sloppy adjoining area”.) Anhedonia, here I come is a light-hearted satirical comedy about literary ambition. The low, sparkling black drone is a rather precious allegory about fathers and sons. The best story in the book is tenuses familiar material – the young man may have become a soccer star but did not return home – to present an extremely rich vision of life itself, with all its wounds and worldly aspirations – Barrett Country is anatomical, wonderful.
Homesick short – 213 pages – but rich. That aside, it’s the work of a writer who is both a gifted stylist and a visual storyteller, and if Barrett isn’t quite Chekhov (but then who?), he is now. She is definitely herself – and the future awaits.
Kevin Power’s novel ‘White City’ to be published in paperback by Scribner UK on March 17
Short Stories: The Homeless Stories of Colin Barrett
Jonathan Cape, 213 pages, hardcover € 18.20; £9.99 eBook
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/homesickness-colin-barrett-finds-new-territory-outside-kevin-barry-country-41431732.html Homesick: Colin Barrett finds new territory outside Kevin Barry’s country