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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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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This is a story that left me somewhat unconvinced. What drew me to Salter in the first place, was the promise of unfamiliar psychological vistas: As a reader, I wanted to encounter something new. As a critic, I wanted stories that would ask more from me than the ability to recognise stock characters and the relationships that traditionally bind them together. This is a very well-crafted story but it also rests upon a dynamic that is both ancient and toxic, namely that of men viewing women as objects and psychological props rather than living, breathing people. Salter handles his charges with considerable sympathy but it is noticeable that Noreen never quite manages to come together as anything more than Arthur’s perceptions of her. I knew coming into Last Night that Salter was an older writer whose worldview was not likely to be particularly progressive but it is still disappointing to run into lazy thought patterns in the work of someone who is manifestly capable of real empathy and understanding. “Palm Court” is what theatre people would call a two-hander: Two characters drawn are together after a long time apart, their unexpected closeness compelling them to consider both why they parted and why they cannot remain together. Continue reading →