Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “Calm With Horses”
At 74-pages in length “Calm with Horses” is not only the longest work in the collection by some considerable margin. It is also the only work that might be described as a novella rather than a conventional short story and this format change may account for why the stylistic fireworks that characterise both “The Clancy Kid” and “The Moon” feel less present.
So what does a Colin Barrett story look like when it isn’t waxing rhapsodic about fierce women and drink-cudgelled men? It looks exactly what I hoped it would look like: An intense and character-focused story that takes place in those few precious millimetres where the wheel of crime fiction hits the road of literature. Ragged, patchy and perhaps overly reliant upon the literary ellipsis, “Calm with Horses” is by no means a finished product but it bodes well for what Barrett might be able to accomplish once he starts producing novels.
The action is set, once again, in the fictional Irish town of Glanbeigh. The novella’s protagonist is a one-time local boxer who is now employed by an enterprising young dope dealer who is also his childhood friend.The novella opens with Arm waiting patiently in the car while his boss confronts an old man who abused his family’s hospitality by trying to climb into bed with a fourteen year-old girl.
Dympna loomed by the passenger window, made a gun shape with his finger and pointed at Arm’s head. Arm popped out his earphones. Dympna’s features, which always looked too small for his wide face, were pinched, consternated. His trackie top was zipped right up to his neck, and Arm watched the zipper shiver tautly against the protuberant knot of his adam’s Apple. Dympna let out a long sigh, like a mammy.
‘Arm, get in there and beat the fuck out of that daft man.’
Dympna’s reluctance to order a beating and his insistence that Arm refrain from killing the man say quite a lot about him as a person. We are told that Arm and Dympna first became friends when a teenaged Dympna rocked up at Arm’s local gym and requested the opportunity to spar with the much larger and better-trained boy. Dympna wasn’t so much interested in learning to box as he was in learning about pain and his reluctance to have a child-molester beaten to death is taken to show a certain degree of caution and bloodlessness. Dympna is not someone who flies off the handle… he’s a thinker.
The relationship between Dympna and Arm seems beautifully realised when considered in light of the other stories in this collection. Unlike local villain Nubbin Tansey (who appears in both “Stand Your Skin” and “Bait”), Dympna is not a man whose agency is based upon various forms of chemical stimulant. Sure… Dympna drinks but his hangovers send him scurrying for the duvet and DVD box-set suggesting that, by the standards of Glanbeigh men, he is an extraordinarily focused, ambitious and thoughtful individual. Arm, on the other hand is a more conventional Glanbeigh man in so far as his life a collection of bad decisions and long-regretted relationships with women who were, are, and always will be out of his league. We are told that Arm was once a promising boxer who was lured from a promising career by Dympna’s friendship as well as his vision:
Arm intuited that even at sixteen Dympna had plans, and that Dympna would need to understand the dynamics of pain, its infliction and its absorption, in order to effect those plans. What Dympna couldn’t give a fuck for were the organised formalities and quaint codes of conduct that governed in-the-ring competition, and after he secured what he wanted – Arm, Arm’s friendship – he persuaded Arm that he shouldn’t either.
The idea that Dympna might struggle with “quaint codes of conduct” and “organised formalities” is a nifty piece of foreshadowing as is the broader suggestion that Dympna owes a lot of his power and focus to the judgement of a ‘coven’ of older sisters and a mother with connections to the world of organised crime. Indeed, while Dympna may come across as the best type of man that Glanbeigh could ever dream of producing, his trust and respect for women ultimately proves to be something of an impediment in an underworld dominated by men like Nubbin Tansey and his uncles.
As fascinating as Dympna may be, the real focus of the story is Arm and Barrett devotes quite a lot of energy to exploring Arm’s relationships with both his ex and his autistic son Jack.
Jack had his noises, and Arm could read the colour and shape of his moods in the noises as plain as day. There were the moos and coos of contentment, the squawks and trills of delight, the stream of burbles that attended his absorption in some odd task, the injurious kitten mewling for when things weren’t going his way, and then there was the deep, guttural screaming that stood for itself and nothing else. His tantrums were infrequent, but came on abruptly, and often without identifiable course. He could become violent, usually to himself, knocking his head against a wall, trying to kick through glass frames or wooden doors, mauling his own fingers until they bled. Anyone who got in his way was fair game for a savage swick. The violence was an undirected venting of pressure, and meant nothing beyond the compulsion of its expression – so hazarded the doctors. It was what it was, like the weather.
Equipping Arm with an autistic son might be considered something of a brute-force approach to humanising the character. Reading about Arm taking Jack to a fast-food restaurant put me in mind of hitmen and assassins who are forced to look after kittens and small children in Hollywood films. Barrett even refers to Jack as occasionally mewing like a kitten.
Though undeniably a blunt-object, Jack also carries some thematic heft as his unpredictable moods and impenetrable psychology recalls the savagery of the world as well as the arbitrary nature of our social conventions. Arm copes surprisingly well with Jack in part because Jack’s mother is one of those incredibly brave and competent women who litter the pages of Young Skins.
Looking back over the stories in Young Skins, I am struck by the fact that while they all feature amazingly fierce women, they are really about a profound crisis in masculinity. As in many other Western countries, Young Skin’s Ireland is filled with men who seem to have reacted to their loss of power and privilege by falling to pieces… Having been told they are no longer entitled to run the world and treat everyone else as objects, the men of Young Skins have surrendered to self-doubt and withdrawn into peculiar worlds of their own creation. The women of Young Skins are not inherently fierce or powerful, it’s just that they have been forced into these roles by a male population that would rather drink and pine than step up and assume an equal share of responsibility. Neurotic, dysfunctional and impassive, the men of Glanbeigh would rather watch the world burn than wield the kind of consensual and accountable power that Dympna appears to be chasing.
Things start to turn sour when Dympna and Arm are visited by one of Dympna’s uncles. The uncles are proper backwoodsmen who grow weed in the cellar of an isolated farm that is well-stocked with guns and long devoid of civility. The uncles make it known that they are displeased with Dympna’s decision to let the wannabe-child molester off with little more than a near-fatal beating.
I think they will lift him from the street and take him out there and feed him to their dogs. I think they don’t give a fuck about anything after that, and the shit storm that’ll follow. They don’t believe in the guards, jail, not really. Fuck, they barely believe in this town. They live out in the fucking wilds with the stones and the dogs and their guns and they think that’s all there really is.
It is interesting that a man as politically careful as Dympna would view his business partners in such absolute terms. It’s one thing to say that the uncles are violent, it’s another thing to say that they care about family honour, but it’s quite another to suggest that they are completely unconstrained by anything approaching awareness of consequences. This vision of the uncles as savages recalls the descriptions of Nubbin Tansey in the earlier stories along with the inferiority complex that accompanies it. Sure… Dympna and Arm are powerful, intimidating men but they’re nothing compared to the real men.
This inferiority complex goes some way to explaining the story’s defining action as the next thing we know, Arm is ambushing the child-molester and drowning him in a river without telling anyone about it. Barrett unpacks Arm’s sudden bout of agency both in symbolic terms by comparing him to the occasionally-savage Jack and in more psychological terms in a sub-plot involving Arm’s attempt to seduce a woman who takes Jack riding as a form of therapy. Barrett’s lack of precision on this matter is rather frustrating as Arm’s decision to murder the child molester defines not only his character but also the outcome of the story.
It seems clear that we are supposed to perceive a connection between Jack’s tantrums and Arm’s decision to take matters into his own hands but the point connecting the two characters is not as clear as it could have been. Jack manifestly enjoys going riding and, when accompanying him, Arm decides to give it a try himself. Unexpectedly, the horse spooks and takes off across the field until Arm’s ex Ursula and potential love interest Rebecca manage to catch up:
‘I didn’t do anything,’ Arm explained to both women.
‘You didn’t mean to,’ Rebecca corrected him, ‘I shouldn’t have had you up there. Normally it’s only me or the kids on her. You smell and weigh like another species. Sorry Douglas, get on down.’
Clearly Arm has failed a test and both women know it. When Arm first hooked up with Dympna, his sisters passed judgement on him and so he was allowed into the inner circle. Here, Arm has failed a similar test for reasons that do not even begin to make sense of him. He was judged and found wanting. Shame and wasted potential barred him from the kingdom and compelled him to become more of a man.
While the uncles come to represent a form of unabashed and unopposed masculinity, Arm’s decision to imitate what he understands to be their methods set he and Dympna on a path to self-destruction as rocking up at the uncles’ place and unexpectedly bragging about having killed a man is interpreted as some kind of threat.
The story de-knots itself with considerably style and panache but Barrett’s reluctance to press his analysis (either at the level of character or plot) results in a story that feels unpowered given the number of thematic and psychological possibilities it contains. There are now two stories left in this collection… can Barrett look beyond fierce women and hollow men to the real problems underpinning Glanbeigh? We shall see.