Having spent some time among the upper middle-class Americans of James Salter’s Last Night, I decided to go somewhere different for my next series of pieces about short fiction. Set in the fictitious Irish town of Glanbeigh, Colin Barrett’s debut collection Young Skins is less interested in plot and character than it is in the idea of place and how specific places can yield specific mind-sets that reproduce themselves through both language and relationships. Much like Salter, Barrett makes no attempt to distance himself from a male point-of-view but where Salter is wise and deliberate, Barrett is mystified and overwhelmed.
The first story in the collection sets the terms of engagement: “The Clancy Kid” introduces us not only to the town and the type of characters that Barrett has chosen to write about but also how his stories relate to the present. Yes… I know that’s a strange thing to comment but I’ll unpack what I mean a bit further on.
Here’s our introduction to Glanbeigh:
My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories is near. Summer evening, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.
This could be almost any small town in the British isles and therein lies the rub. Having found us a place, Barrett establishes a time:
It is Sunday. The weekend, that three-day festival of attrition, is done. Sunday is the day of purgation and redress; of tenderised brain cases and see-sawing stomachs and hollow pledges to never, ever get that twisted again. A day you are happy to see slip by before it really gets going.
Again, neither the writing nor the ideas in this paragraph are particularly novel or unique. I like the talk of ‘tenderised braincases’ and the use of the word ‘twisted’ rather than the American ‘wasted’ or the British ‘mashed’ but we are still in the arena of the generic. There is nothing special about this time and place.
Taken together, these two passages create an impression of stagnation. A town that has become just like everywhere else on a day that might as well slip by before it really gets going. Though an unusual note on which to start a short-story collection, this sense of paralysis has rubbed off on the characters, who sit in the tiny smoking area of a non-descript local pub.
I’m nursing a pint, downing it so slowly it’s already lost its fizz.
The town, the characters and the pint have all long-since lost their fizz, they are trapped in a permanent Sunday afternoon. While Barrett keeps the point-of-view character under wraps for now, he explores this feeling of arrested development through his descriptions of the character’s best mate, a troubled lad who used to be the town’s golden boy until he too was weighted down:
Back in our school days, the convent girls and all their mammies were goo-goo-eyed over Tug. He was a handsome lad, all up through his teens, but by sixteen had begun to pile on the pounds, and the pounds stuck. The weight gives him a lugubrious air; the management and conveyance of his bulk is an involved and sapping enterprise.
I like the slightly odd syntax of “but by sixteen had begun to pile on the pounds”, it’s awkward in a way that jolts you out of the text but the distance you are jolted is tiny… just far enough to help you register that it was the pounds that piled onto Tug and not Tug who piled on the pounds. He was a handsome lad and full of promise but the fizz went out of him and now he can barely summon the energy to move. The entropic lethargy of the town and its male characters is set against the wild and alien energy of the town’s young women:
I ran into her on Fandango’s on the Friday. There was the usual crowd; micro-minied girls on spike heels, explosively frizzed hair, spray-tan mahogany décolletage. There were donkey-necked boys in button-down tablecloth-pattern shirts, farmers’ sons who wear their shirtsleeves rolled up past their elbows, as if at any moment they might be called upon to pull a calf out of a cow’s steaming nethers. Fandangos was a hot box. Neon strobed and pulsed, dry ice fumed in the air. Libidinal bass juddered the windowless walls.
Just as the farmers’ sons seem out of place on a dance floor occupied by micro-minied aliens with explosively frizzed hair and spiked heels, the very idea of a nightclub seems a universe away from the cramped smoking area and the non-descript pub favoured by the story’s principle characters. “Explosively frizzed hair” is a fantastic image as it draws our attention to both the amount of effort that these young women put into their appearances and the total lack of inertia possessed by the town’s young men. Explosively frizzed hair? These jokers can’t scrape together enough energy to keep the fizz on a pint of lager!
Fandangos is where the POV character last ran into Marlene, a one-time lover who liked him enough to look past the state of his calves. The POV character really liked Marlene and Marlene really liked him but their relationship never came to anything and so Marlene moved on and got pregnant:
‘So is she with the Cuculann fella then or what?’
I shrug my shoulders. They have a baby so it’s only fair they play Mammy and Daddy; it’s what they are. Whatever else she does or does not do with Cuculann is fine by me, I tell myself. I tell myself that if anything I should feel a measure of gratitude towards the lad, for taking the paternity bullet I dodged.
Barrett is a writer who is very aware of the language he uses and how sentences flow into each other before eventually forming a river of character, place and story. The echoed “I tell myself” suggests a deliberate attempt to come to terms with something painful. I love the idea of paternity being a bullet that must eventually be fired… Love as Russian roulette; keep pulling the trigger and the rewards rise along with the risks. Quit while you’re ahead and let the next sucker walk into the path of the bullet. I love this idea for the way that it de-emphasises the agency of the players. The POV character is a man so lacking in agency that he can’t summon the energy to build a relationship, even when it requires nothing more than a twitch of the finger and a tightening of the balls.
Jimmy – the POV character – is sick with jealousy and self-hatred for letting Marlene get away but rather than trying to win her back or move on with his life, he seems content to let the yearning and regret define him. As the two lads leave the pub, they spot Cuculann’s car and Jimmy gets Tug to tip it on its side. Grabbing a lipstick spilled from Marlene’s handbag, he scrawls “MARRYME” on the windscreen and flees the scene. Even his attempts at creation are linked to destruction and decay… he lacks the energy to build anything, he is mired in entropy and so will remain until the day he dies.
The title of the story comes from Tug’s latest obsession; a small child who disappeared while on a school trip to Dublin. Thrown into a frenzy, the Irish media began reporting sightings of the child including one that placed him with a pair of eastern-European women who might (according to Tug) be childless lesbians. Just as Jimmy yearns for Marlene, Tug yearns for the symbolism and untapped potential bundled up into a small child who is stolen from Irish parents and forced to walk an entirely different path to the one he would have been consigned to had he remained at home:
Tug can’t let the Clancy kid go. He can’t resist the queasy hypotheticals such an open-ended story encourages. What-ifs proliferate like black flowers in the teeming muck of his imagination. Left unchecked he’ll riff all evening about unmarked graves packed with line, international rings of child traffickers, organ piracy, enforced cult initiation.
Tug may well be weighed down with flab, sadness and mental illness, but his mind still churns and creates possibilities that he has long since learned to deny himself.
The pair’s attitude towards possibility is put to the test after they flee the pub. Walking across a footbridge on their way to Tug’s parents’ place, they come across a pair of girls and a young lad with an aluminium rod and a face daubed with what looks like war paint:
He stamps up along the flattened fence and hops back onto the towpath. He goes through a martial arts display: slashing the air with the rod then spinning it over his head, fluidly transferring it from one twisting hand to the other. He finished by leaning forward on one knee and brandishing the crimped end of the rod at Tug’s sternum.
‘This is my bridge,’ he says, baring his teeth.
Unlike Jimmy and Tug, the lad has laid claim to the ground on which he stands. All he has is an abandoned bridge and an aluminium rod but these are enough to make him a king in both his mind and the eyes of his female followers. The difference in gender roles between the local children and the local 20-somethings is striking: As children, the boys are fierce and the women are happy to follow but something happens to them around puberty and all that fierceness and promise is replaced with regret and yearning.
Barrett’s decision to have the young lad describe himself as a king feels a bit gratuitous, an attempt to tap into mythological resonances that might edge the story out of mere ‘lyrical’ realism and into something more akin to the poetic realism of 1930s French cinema. Though somewhat jarring, the move is surprisingly effective as it confronts the characters with proof of their own entropy in a way that dreams of lost boys and potential sons could never achieve. The characters don’t necessarily know what the meeting means but they know that they have experienced something:
The beams of the crippled bridge warp and sing beneath us all the way over, and when we make it to the far shore and step back down onto solid earth, a surge of absurd gratitude flows through me. I reach out and pat Tug on the shoulder and turn to salute the boy king and his giggling girl entourage. But when I look back across the tumbling black turbulence of the water I see that the children are gone.
I mention poetic realism above and doubtless I will mention it again as I write about the other short stories in the collection but reading this final passage reminded me of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and the expression the husband has when he climbs out of the water after seeing his lost wife in the murk and eddies of a French canal. These are touches of the fantastical that are neither escapist nor pandering… they are expressions of sadness so pronounced that they was wrenched themselves free from a human soul and imposed themselves upon the world.
Barrett’s use of the fantastical is almost expressionistic and it underlines my feeling that “The Clancy Kid” is set in a perpetual now where the past is impossibly remote and the future never comes. Barrett’s writing crawls from sentence to sentence with little care for such macroscopic issues as plot or character. Instead of arcs and themes, “The Clancy Kid” is a story of moods and places… where you are and how you feel rather than what you think and what you do. Thinking and doing require energy and time, something that Barrett’s characters manifestly lack.