As I reach the finish line, I’m moved to consider whether or not Colin Barrett’s Young Skins is actually a decent collection of short stories. As I’ve mentioned before, Barrett’s name often features in articles devoted to the emergence of a new wave of Irish writers and I think the Glanbeigh stuff justifies his inclusion in those types of curatorial pieces… but only just.
“The Clancy Kid” and “Bait” are hip to gender politics and come with enough ugliness, sensuality and kinetic weirdness to ensure that they linger first in the eye and then in the mind. However, as compelling as the collection’s opening stories may be, nothing else quite manages to reach their levels of either cleverness or artistry.
Presenting Young Skins as a story cycle set in the fictional town of Glanbeigh was a great idea as it encourages us to view the collection’s weaker stories in a flattering light cast by its opening triumphs. However, while Barrett does connect the stories at the level of both place and character, he struggles to find deeper connections and so fails to achieve either stylistic consistency or thematic focus resulting in a collection that rapidly loses its shape despite the diminishing returns offered by the pretence of inter-connectedness. Once you realise that Barrett is never going to build on the achievements of those opening stories, you are left with the frustrating and the merely passable.
Young Skins’ final story “Kindly Forget My Existence” is an excellent case in point as while it would appear to be set in the same place as “The Clancy Kid” and “Bait” it is actually an entirely generic piece of literary writing that could have been written by almost anyone and published almost anywhere.
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If “Calm with Horses” was all about Barrett relaxing into the long-distance gait of the novelist then this story is all about the explosive energy of the short fiction sprinter. Even less concerned with narrative and sustained characterisation than the collection’s opening stories, “Diamonds” demonstrates the raw power of Barrett’s prose as well as the strategic weaknesses of his methods.
The story begins with a display of pyrotechnics:
The midland skies were huge, drenched in pearlescent light and stacked with enormous chrome confections of cloud, their wrinkled undersides greyly streaked and mottled, brimming with whatever rain is before it becomes rain. Each time I came to and checked the carriage window the same cow seemed to be eyeing me from the same sodden, tobacco-brown field.
Little more than a shot across the reader’s bow, we move on to discover a protagonist who is all out of luck and all out of options. Rock bottom is rising up to meet him and the only way out was a return to source… to Glanbeigh!
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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.
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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.
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Short story Short: This is yet another story about the impossibly fierce, beautiful and unapproachable women living in the fictional Irish town of Glanbeigh.
Short story Long: This follows the example set by “Bait” in so far as it takes the basic gender dynamics explored in “The Clancy Kid” and deepens the analysis by exporting it to a slightly different relationship. The result is a surprisingly humane short story about the crisis of masculinity and how young women react to the collapse of male identities. It also touches on the idea of change and how making positive changes in one’s life often requires levels of energy that are drained by the very things that would make you want to make those changes in the first place.
When change is impossible one can only settle and “The Moon” is as much a story about a woman’s refusal to settle as it is about a man finding comfort and stability in the misery that surrounds him.
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“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.
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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.
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While I have tried my best to stay out of the way of any essays or reviews that might have distorted my take on this collection, I had heard that the final eponymous story was something special. I imagine there’s an art to the ordering of short story collections, maybe you start strong in order to grab the attention, hide the weaker stories in the middle, and end with fireworks in an effort to ensure that readers walk away from the book with a good impression of the author. Art as cognitive psychology… you always remember the first things and the final things but the stuff in the middle fades quite quickly. Last Night certainly started strongly only to become stuck in a rut of photocopied themes and stock characters, did Salter have it in him to go out with a bang? Well… yes.
I can certainly see why “Last Night” would stick in some reviewers’ memories; it seems considerably more accessible than a lot of the stories in the collection and while it too revisits those themes of middle-aged regret and sexual yearning, it does so in a style more reminiscent of O. Henry or Roald Dahl than James Salter. Much like “Give”, “Last Night” is ostensibly all about the twist in the tale while the really interesting stuff lies buried in sub-text and the details of character psychology. Like many of the best stories in this collection “Last Night” appears to be about one thing but is actually about another.
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I am aware that my pieces about the stories in this collection have been growing increasingly ill-tempered. At first, Salter’s elliptical methods and saw-tooth stylings enchanted me but the novelty has worn off and left me frustrated by his decision to keep re-visiting the same themes and characters over and over and over again. Especially seeing as those themes and characters are actually quite generic once you move beyond the wonderful crunchiness of Salter’s technical panache.
My piece about “Bangkok” – the previous story in this collection – contains an embryonic account of Salter’s affective economics but while “Arlington” does inspire me to modify this theory, it is a story that falls well within the narrow thematic parameters of what is ultimately a very disciplined collection.
In my previous piece, I suggested that most of the stories in Last Night are about the individual’s relationship with the Good Life, as determined by Salter. A more accurate account of the collection is that it revolves around three broad character types:
- People who have completely devoted themselves to a life of hedonistic passion. Salter portrays these people as awe-inspiring in that their absolute commitment to the Id has rendered them both glorious and more than a little terrifying. Think of the actress in “Eyes of the Stars”, the mistress in “Platinum”, the poet in “My Lord You” and the female character in “Bangkok”.
- People who have actively chosen to turn their backs on the Good Life. Salter portrays these people as weak and contemptuous cowards whose commitment to bourgeois institutions such as work and family serve only to mask a deep and all-consuming bitterness about their own failure to pursue the Good Life. Think of Arthur in “Palm Grove”, Hollis in “Bangkok”, the wife in “Comet” and Jane in “Such Fun”.
- People who have tasted the fruit of the Good Life and have endeavoured to pursue it only to find themselves tragically and unwillingly hamstrung by either personality or circumstance. These people are also destined to live lives of quiet regret but their momentary closeness to the Good Life makes them noble. Think of the husbands in “Platinum” and “Comet” or the TV Producer in “Eyes of the Stars”.
The first two character types form polar extremes and while Salter litters his stories with examples of both types, he isn’t really interested in the psychology of the people at either pole: Those living the Good Life are awesome demigods and those uninterested in the Good Life are nothing more than empty husks. The people who really interest Salter are those who are still in the process of determining where they stand relative to the two extremes. Salter’s sympathy for his own characters depends largely upon how much effort they put into their failed attempt at the Good Life: Those who take risks, make sacrifices and still fail are deemed noble and tragic while those who shrug their shoulders and walk away are destined to be hollowed-out by regret. In my previous piece, I compared Salter’s affective economics to the sexual economics explored in Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever but Salter brings to Houellebecq a vision of the Protestant work ethic under which we are all duty-bound to seek out anal sex and threesomes lest we be found morally wanting.
“Arlington” is a story that features all three Salterian character types and the moral dynamics that unite them.
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One of the most interesting things about working my way through a collection of literary short stories has been the obviousness of the author’s ideological assumptions. Most of the short fiction I have read between now and the end of my schooling has been science fictional and genre writers have grown quite adept at cloaking any personal beliefs in a combination of irony, abstraction and re-iteration. The majority of genre authors may be left-wing but most of the genre’s tropes are right-wing and so you often have to pay attention to the background or the words of secondary characters in order to gain a glimpse of what the author actually believes. This type of deep-reading and second-guessing is not necessary in Salter’s fiction: His assumptions about the nature of the good life are right there in the foreground of everything he writes.
Like most people, Salter is clearly no monolith. His ideas about the benefits of passion vs. the benefits of emotional control wax and wane with every story and so a story like “Comet” can unambiguously champion the idea of a life devoted to hedonistic passion while “Eyes of the Stars”, “My Lord You” and “Give” can strike notes of caution. All of the stories in this collection are about the wealthy and middle-aged and most of these people are being quietly devoured by regret and yearning for that one moment where they might have given themselves over entirely to pleasure. Though occasionally dismissive and judgemental of the people who live under a cloud of permanent regret, Salter does try to sympathise with the people who simply aren’t capable of living that type of lifestyle. In fact, “Platinum” and “Palm Court” are both quite explicitly about the quasi-Darwinian forces that exclude the weak and un-committed from Salter’s idea of the good life.
I use terms like “weak” and “un-committed” advisedly as while Salter does recognise that not everyone is going to pursue his idea of the good life, he struggles to understand why anyone would turn their back on it except as a result of trauma or timidity. In fact, I am almost tempted to say that Last Night is Salter’s failed attempt to write his way into an understanding of people who value emotional stability over passion, hence the number of stories that turn out to be about regret.
In the comments to my piece about “Palm Court”, Brendan C. Byrne says:
I think it might be better considered as a pair with the following entry, “Bangkok”, another two-hander with the same themes, though more bare and bitter. Together they ruminate on the “lost” love which animates the man’s history but which seems far more slight to the woman, and what the return of the fetishized figure of the past creates (mostly just an unsuccessful challenge to the pathological).
I mostly agree with this reading but I think that it’s the bareness and bitterness of “Bangkok” that makes it the more interesting story of the two: “Bangkok” and “Palm Court” are both about a woman trying to rekindle a relationship that she once sabotaged and a man who refusing to commit to the demands of a passionate life and hating himself for it too. The difference between the two stories is that “Bangkok” strips away the narratives that the characters tell about themselves. This story is Last Night boiled down to a thick black paste, you take your shot at a life defined by amazing sex or you sit on the side-lines resenting your decision forever.
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