Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “Stand Your Skin”
I alighted on this book after reading a few reviews but none of them went so far as to mention a context for the book’s creation. Interviews with Barrett focus on his process and the fact that he evidently achieved publication after receiving a post-graduate degree means that he tends to view his own process through a lens of theoretical jargon. As a result, I was rather pleased to notice Colin Barrett being touted as one of the more striking voices of post-crash Irish literature. Evidently I’m not the only person who thinks that Barrett is on to something…
Looking back, I notice an edge to my last piece about Young Skins as I was starting to get very frustrated with the narrowness of Barrett’s subject matter: Yes, rural Ireland is a psychic sinkhole… Yes, Irish women are terrifyingly fierce… Yes, Irish men are hapless and broken figures… Is that all you have to say for yourself? Thankfully, the next story in the collection has gone some way towards renewing my faith in both Barrett and my decision to write at length about his collection of short stories.
“Stand Your Skin” may be another story of broken men, unattainable women and depressing local pubs but the slightly higher page count has allowed Barrett to move beyond his initial terms of engagement and provide us with a bit more of a character study. “Stand Your Skin” is all about how one of the broken men of Glanbeigh came to be broken in the first place.
This is the story of a man named Bat… a big, hulking brute of a man who dresses in leather, rides a motorbike and has arms covered in tattoos. Despite being huge and intimidating, Bat is as soft as a bottle of pop and the story about how this state of affairs came to pass.
Bat palms more water onto his face, slaps his cheeks to get the blood shifting. The beers won’t help of course, but the fact is the headaches come regardless, leadenly routine now. In addition, there are more migraines, mercifully rarer though much more vicious, two-day-long blowouts of agonising snowblindness that at their worst put Bat whimpering and supine on the floor of his bedroom, a pound of wet cloth mashed into his eyesockets to staunch, however negligibly, the pain.
The doctors insist the head troubles have nothing to do with it, but Bat knows they are another bequeathal of the boot to the face.
The boot to the face came courtesy of Nubbin Tansey, the diminutive but unpredictable gangster who appeared in “Bait” but is now reportedly long dead. While Barrett makes it clear that the boot in the face was the defining moment of Bat’s life, he withholds the details of the assault as a way of placing a question mark over the character’s misshapen head. As the story unfolds, we may learn more about Bat as a person but the question mark means that all of our conclusions are tentative. We are put in a position of waiting for the detail that will bring the character into focus even though we have lots of information from which to draw conclusions about Bat’s character.
The engineered instability at the heart of Bat’s character is a reflection of how the character sees himself. Barrett encourages us to relate everything back to the boot in the face because Bat sees everything he does and everything he is in terms of that event. In short, he has allowed a single moment to completely define his life.
One side-effect of Bat’s obsession is his tendency to describe himself in almost architectural terms. He fusses over every component of his physical body and talks about them individually as though he were a damaged automaton whose inner workings have somehow been exposed:
Six separate operations, ninety-two percent articulation recovered and the brunt of the damage superficially effaced but for a couple of minute white divots in his left cheek, and a crooked droop of the mouth on that side. It’s slight but distinct, the droop, a nipped outward twisting of the lip, an unhinging, that makes him look always a little gormless.
He’s conscious also they may be eyeing the balky hydraulics of his jaw as he chews.
Bat feels doltish – too big, too bluntly dimensioned, a thickset golem hewn from the scrabbled, sodden dirt of Connaught. His jaw throbs – the teeth set into his jaw throb.
Barrett keeps returning to the tiny details of Bat’s physicality in an effort not only to capture the self-consciousness that affects his every waking minute, but also to convey the fact that Bat sees himself as somehow fundamentally broken or incomplete. What confidence Bat might once have had has long-since left the building.
We join Bat as he arrives for work. Slightly late and inappropriately dressed, he is sent out back to clean the rotisserie until joined by a pair of co-workers. Despite relentlessly putting himself down, Bat reveals a rare sensitivity when he describes the evolution of the couple’s relationship:
Bat looks from Tain to Heg. For the past three months Bat has watched these two smile, joke, snark, preen and goad each other, with escalating intensity, up until three weekends ago, when the tone of their exchanges changes abruptly. For a few days the two were terse, even clumsy in each other’s company. Now, while things have relaxed into their original rhythm somewhat, their interactions possess an edge, a spikiness, that was previously absent.
Immediately suspicious that the university-aged Heg might have shagged the much younger Tain, Bat takes himself off to the local library to check the age of consent before concluding that Heg is almost certainly a statutory rapist.
This is both an odd thing to do and an odd detail to include in the story as Heg and Tain hooking up seems to have little impact upon Bat’s life. Having read “The Clancy Kid” and “The Moon”, I suspect that Bat’s sudden concern for legal niceties is all about coping with feelings of jealousy by de-legitimising both Heg’s conquest of Tain and Bat’s own desire for a teenaged girl.
I love the fact that while Bat is hyper-aware of his pain and the details of other people’s relationships, he seems completely disconnected from his own emotions. He feels the sting of jealousy but chooses to interpret it as moral disgust.
Despite his low-level outrage, Bat accepts Heg’s invitation to join him in town for a few drinks prior to the younger man returning to college. Bat doesn’t normally go into town at weekends, what breaks the habit is the suggestion that Tain might actually want him there too:
She heads in and Heg follows, turning at the last to catch Bat’s eye.
‘No, but come. It won’t be the same otherwise.’
The party turns out to be a completely humiliating experience for both Bat and Tain.
Having been seduced, Tain takes her invitation to the party as a sign that Heg wishes them to appear together as a couple. As a result, she slaps on a load of make-up and finds a fancy dress only to be ambushed by the presence of Tain’s impossibly glamorous university girlfriend. Meanwhile, Bat finds himself completely isolated as Heg is one of those extroverted people who invites people to things in order to use them as set-dressing rather than to actually spend time talking to them.
Bat too, has kept his trap shut, his conversational contributions amounting to timed groans and dry whistles as one or another anecdote winds to its climax. They are all talking about and around college, the communal life they share there; the talk is an involved braid of in-jokes and contextual nuggets and back references.
Feeling uncomfortable and out of their depth, Bat and Tain share a moment:
‘I feel like a wanker,’ she says.
‘Don’t,’ Bat says. ‘Heg has us all standing around like gobshites.’
The moment is short lived as their bonding session is immediately interrupted by Bat’s cousin, the wonderfully-named Luke Minion. Yet another dominate-and-control extrovert, Luke elbows his way into the conversation and begins reminding Bat of their shared past and every mistake that Bat has made in his short and misjudged life. Suddenly nauseous, Bat escapes to the toilet leaving Luke to charm the vulnerable Tain and spill the beans about the story of the boot in the face.
The story of the boot in the face is a beautifully constructed and written story-within-a-story that paints Bat neither as a failed villain nor as someone who messed with the wrong guy. In truth, Bat’s life unravelled because he happened to walk into a kebab shop at precisely the wrong moment.
Life is a combination of injustice and malign happenstance but what defines us is how we react to those moments in which everything goes wrong and the world asserts its right to break us down. Bat could have pressed charges, could have demanded vengeance and extracted his pound of flesh but instead he allowed Tansey to walk away unscathed. People were willing to step in and support Bat but he never showed any sign of wanting to… he just accepted the misery that chance dumped upon his plate. Barrett explains this lack of agency in a throwaway comment that cuts straight to the heart of Glanbeigh:
I used to pick on him a lot when we were kids. We all did. And if I wanted an excuse I could say he was the type that asked for it, or didn’t know how not to ask for it. Slap him in the face nine times and he’d come back for number ten.
Bat sees himself as a victim because of the boot to the face but in truth, his victimhood runs much deeper. As a child, Bat fell into one of the world’s deepest grooves; The people around him needed somewhere for their negative emotions to go and Bat was a natural fit for every joke and attempt to unite the group in their scorn of someone weaker. Bat never had any choice about being a target… he was raised to expect a slap in the face and when the slaps turned into a boot, it simply did not occur to him not to accept it.
Upon returning from the toilet, Bat notices Luke and Tain getting off with each other and sets out for home. Once there, he says good night to his aging mother and feels the sting of her contempt as he heads up the stairs:
There is a part of her that hates her son, the enormous, fatiguing fragility of him.
Referred to throughout the story as the ‘old dear’, Bat’s mother is an imposing figure with an obvious connection to the fierce, beautiful women that feature in stories like “The Clancy Kid”, “The Moon” and “Bait”. She knows precisely what sort of person her son has grown into and her contempt for the boy’s placidity lures her into fantasising about his death:
She has dreams of his bike leaving the road, his body a red rent along the macadam of some bleak country lane and the massive, settling silence afterwards.
She hates what she allowed her son to become but acknowledges her role not only in the destruction of his agency but also his continuing lack of self-respect:
For a long moment she does not know who she is, or where she is. When it comes back to her, she calls out for her son.
She, like Heg and Luke, need Bat around in order to make themselves look and feel good. Just as Heg needed meat in the room to make himself feel more important at a party and Luke needed someone to take the slaps and accept the jokes, Bat’s mother needs someone she can boss around and generally worry about. Bat is right to see himself as a victim and a broken man but he is wrong to think that his lack of agency has anything to do with the boot in the face… people got used to kicking him long before he stepped inside that kebab shop. It wasn’t Nubbin Tansey that turned him into a broken automaton, it was the people he calls friends and family.