Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “Bait”
“Bait” closely resembles “The Clancy Kid” in that it is another story about the gender dynamics of Barrett’s fictional Irish town. In Glanbeigh, the young women are fierce and exotic creatures while the young men are so devoid of agency that they seem as though they could turn into furniture at any moment.
In both stories, a hopeless young local moves into the orbit of an impossibly glamorous local girl who brings something resembling happiness into his life only for it to be snatched away. Incapable either of grasping why the relationship came to an end or finding a replacement source of happiness, the young men fall into a pit of nostalgic self-loathing that prevents any and all forward motion. They simply cannot get over letting such gorgeous and exotic creatures slip through their fingers.
This is not just problematic, it is also profoundly unhealthy and the fact that all the men keep falling into the same hideous trap is a comment both upon the fucked up nature of the town’s male inhabitants and the fucked up nature of the town. If “The Clancy Kid” is a broad introduction to the pathological sexism of Glanbeigh then “Bait” is a look at the ugly masculinity that fuels it.
The story begins by introducing us to a pair of lads by the name of Matteen and Teddy. Matteen is a local pool shark who makes a living by taking over a pool table at a local pub and taking on all comers in return for money. Matteen isn’t just good at pool, he’s massively better than anyone in the local area but despite never losing a game, he is never short of opponents desperate to take their shot at the king:
Brendan Timlin went first and lost his fiver in four minutes. Peter Duggan next. Best of three, gone in two rounds and fourteen minutes. So it went. An hour in and Matteen was up fifty-five quid even after the twelve cokes he’d bought me, himself and the two girls.
The speed with which Matteen dispatches his opponents suggests that these games are not exactly learning opportunities. These lads aren’t playing Matteen in the hope of improving their games, they are lining up to test their mettle and prove something about themselves. What that something might be is not exactly clear but Barrett does hint at the futility of this endeavour in his description of the pub:
The irrelevantly elderly lined the bar, mostly fat men with dead wives, hefting pints to their bloated, drink-cudgelled faces.
The “me” in the first quotation is Teddy, Matteen’s cousin and a similarly neutered presence to Tug in “The Clancy Kid”. Teddy is not exactly what you’d call a ‘player’ as what prestige he has comes directly from his position as chauffeur and drinks-buyer for Matteen, who sits in the back of Teddy’s shitbox car on the grounds that he gets seasick.
Given that Matteen has enough agency to parlay his skill at the pool table into some sort of local reputation, you might expect him to be slightly better placed when it comes to female companionship. The characters in “The Clancy Kid” may have reacted to female sexuality like deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck but that was because neither of them seemed to have very much to offer those women who did choose to sleep with them. Matteen’s problem is that he is still in love with Sarah Dignan.
Sarah is blonde, elegant and well over six-feet tall. Her beauty and charisma are so out of character for the area let alone her squat and ugly family that many people in the area seem to view her as some sort of space alien or captured fairy:
Given the incongruity in semblance and substance, theories concerning the Dignan girl’s true origins and nature had regularly bubbled forth. Talk was Sarah was a foundling from gypsy stock or an orphan from Chernobyl. That during her birth her umbilical cord tangled round her neck, asphyxiating and rendering her brain dead for five minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, but that she had inexplicably come back. That she suffered from Asperger’s or ADHD or was bipolar. That she was either, by the textbook definitions, a moron, or possessed a genius-level IQ. That she had gone through puberty at six, hence her inordinate height.
Here we find Barrett returning not only to female exoticism but also to the use of mythology. What I love about this section is the way that different mythological eras seem to succeed each other in the body of the text: First she’s a foundling, then she’s a gypsy, then she’s an orphan from Chernobyl and then we move on to contemporary mythologies that account for difference using the rhetoric of psychology rather than more traditional rhetorics of race and/or the supernatural.
Matteen and Sarah have history from a time when their friends decided that they should date:
Shifting was a curiously bloodless, routinised ritual, involving lengthy arbitration by the friends of the prospective pairings, who, as in arranged marriages, did not so much as get to say hello until they were shoved into each other’s arms and exhorted to take the dark walk into the maw of the woods.
The relationship did not last long and Matteen never quite managed to get over it… Years later and he is still pining for the Dignan girl and so has Teddy drive past her home on the way into town. Spotting Sarah and her friend walking along the road, the lads offer them a lift and wind up dragging them to the pub.
The dynamics of the pub are really where the meat of the story lies. Matteen is desperate to get Sarah back but he seems oddly uninterested in actually talking to her. This lack of interest is reflected straight back at him by Sarah and her friend and yet the girls do not bother to leave the pub. Instead, they sit some distance from the pool table with their backs turned to Matteen and Teddy.
“Bait” is all about the need to prove oneself a man… we see it not only in the lads who line up to get beaten at pool but also in the way that Matteen seems more interested in Sarah as a status symbol than either a friend or a lover. The way that Sarah agrees to hang around the pub suggests that while she might very well be interested in Matteen, watching him dispatch people at the pool table really does not do it for her.
Upon first reading this story, I wondered why Barrett has chosen to name it “Bait” and I have two partially overlapping theories:
Firstly, Sarah’s presence in the pub is intended as bait to the hapless losers who line up to get beaten. Walking into the pub with Sarah makes Matteen seem like an even more substantial presence than that suggested by his pool skills and so Sarah serves as bait to farmers’ sons who are desperate to prove their masculinity by beating Matteen in front of what would appear to be his woman.
Secondly, Sarah is being used as bait to attract someone who is actually worth defeating at pool. Matteen is king of the local pool hall but while this gives him both a reputation and an income, it doesn’t seem like defeating the hapless locals is giving Matteen enough of either. One solution would be to leave town and play better opponents but the solution Matteen seems to prefer is to lure someone with genuine prestige into playing him at pool. Enter Nubbin Tansey:
Matteen was up against Killian Weir as Tansey beelined our way, flanked by a couple of big units; ask the gods for henchmen and this is what they would send, twin slabbed stacks of the densest meat, their breezeblock brows unworried by any worm of cerebration. Tansey himself was short, at twenty already balding. He had gaping, thyroidal eyes, the broad skull and delicately tissued temples of a monk or convalescent. He had a tight T-shirt on, exposing veined biceps, as tough and gnarled as root vegetables. He was chewing on his jaw and vibrating faintly in place, a bundle of seeping excess energies. He was likely on several substances.
Tansey postures a bit and makes a pass at Sarah before being lured into a game with Matteen. Matteen is respectful and takes the game seriously but Tansey is high as a kite and uninterested in silly games and so uses his cue to tear up the table. Frustrated, Matteen tells him to piss off and Tansey grabs Sarah on the way past, prompting Sarah to bite him before legging it out the door.
Barrett builds a love-triangle of sorts around Tansey, Matteen and Sarah before engineering the kind of conflict that might traditionally cause the love-triangle to resolve itself in one way or another. However, rather than having Sarah choose a bloke or one of the blokes defeat the other in front of Sarah, Barrett stresses Sarah’s power by having her walk out the door leaving Matteen and Tansey to sort themselves out. As far as resolutions go, this is not what you’d call satisfying but Barrett manages to sell it by dropping into the same kind of expressionistic and mythologically-infused prose style that characterised the encounter with the King in “The Clancy Kid”.
The girls walk out of the pub and into a nearby wood. Teddy follows hot on their tail but he might as well be stepping into a dream:
Leaves depended from the fingerlings of branch ends and brushed my face like dry, frail-veined moths. I stumbled onward over stones, over monstrous hanks of rooted scrub. The smell of the woods in summer was heavy around me, and it stank of fucking.
Barrett associates the woods with sexual activity for the second time in the story and so forms a link between the power of women in the present and the power of women in Matteen’s memory. The suggestion is that creatures like Sarah are too mercurial and inscrutable to be impressed by the posturing of a local pool shark and that while men may pose and preen in the safety of their pubs; women have a source of sexual power that is far more pressing and atavistic. Once inside the woods, the sexless Teddy is set upon and raped by what he assumes to be the two women he followed in:
And then more laughter, and I could not tell who had spoken and who was laughing, and if it wasn’t for the boot flat against my Adam’s apple I would have begged go ahead girls, I would have begged do your worst.
The decision to choose Teddy rather than the two consenting men who were vying for their attention is an expression of real power. Sarah was presented with a choice between two men and she decided to ignore that choice and make another one, upsetting the status games of two well-respected but ultimately stupid men in the process.