Every once in a while there comes along a collection of stories that, from cover to cover, inspires, surprises, delights, and astounds me with what the short story is capable of doing. All too often, many collections have only one or two such memorable stories, while the rest invariably disappoint. I last felt that cover-to-cover wow factor last summer when I read Nancy Lee's Dead Girls. Before that it was Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, preceded by Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, Nam Le's The Boat, Michael Christie's The Beggar's Garden, and Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. Those were books that even after I had finished reading them continued to sit beside me on my desk and to which I frequently turned while working on my own stories in an attempt to determine the how of what they did. Recently I was floored again when I read Colin Barrett's Young Skins.
The six stories and one novella that make up the collection are set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Prior to my reading of this book, I'd always imagined Ireland to be a green, picturesque, yet slightly melancholic island, full of quaint little pub-filled towns and villages, green fields, and cows. There was always the invariable priest and the overarching influence of the church, and its citizens seemed to be a predominantly elderly and respectably poor lot: a notion influenced by all the Irish short fiction (especially William Trevor's) I've read over the years. Barrett, however, flips that idea on its head. Yes, there are tiny pub-filled villages and green fields, but this is a much more gritty Ireland (or, more specifically, a small town near the west coast) consisting of the seriously down and out, people living on "estates" and where those pubs are less charming than they are indicative of the poverty in which these people live and the boredom of their lives. Barrett's Ireland is an ugly place, full of midges that feed on people's heads and contain all the usual and recognizable things that make up an increasingly globalized world. It's also a place in which the young, as the narrator states in the opening story "The Clancy Kid," have the run of the place (1)--these "young skins" with their tattoos and earlobe-stretched earrings, their drugs that they shoot, snort or smoke, their ADHD and autism. And instead of that pernicious and ever-present choke-hold of Roman Catholicism, both priest and church are conspicuously absent, replaced instead by a menacing and anarchic violence. Interesting, too, to note are the unusual couplings that also seem emblematic of the topsy-turvy state of things: Fannigan, a 50-year-old unmarried man who lives with his mother and attempts to rape a 14-year-old girl; Marlene, a single-mom who lives with her "consenting, pragmatic" (4) mother, the latter thinking nothing of her daughter bringing men home; Hector and Paudie, two unmarried brothers who live together (and happen to run a grow-op out of their farm); and Dympna, simultaneously adored by his "coven" (86) of sisters yet tainted by the "persistent low rumours that suggested he fucked [them]" (105). And like the priests, fathers are also missing here. Nearly everyone's "da" has long been in the ground, or just not there.
But what captures and inspires me most about these stories is the language. Barrett has a unique and inimitable style that mixes the arcane with the vulgar, the formal with the crass, blended too with the many colloquialisms unique to Ireland. I turn to a page at random, and here is what I find. From the story "Bait", listen to this:
Music chugged from the open door of a parked car and there were tinnies and smokes as those to shift were determined and paired off. 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. There, with that hello barely exchanged, each couple would find a sheltering bole to lean against or beneath, and commence their bodily negotiations. (20)
As the above illustrates, there's no pared-down minimalist prose here; rather Barrett is unafraid to do the opposite, to write in what he called in a recent Paris Review interview a "maximalistic" style. It's refreshingly unique and exciting.
In addition, Barrett seldom employs boring linking verbs like "was," "seem," or "got". Nearly every Barrett sentence cracks, pops, and sizzles--not to mention surprises--with an energy that I've only ever seen before in someone like Denis Johnson. Again, listen to this passage, and notice how every verb (and adjective too) is a vibrant and animated thing:
Fandango's was a hot box. Neon strobed and pulsed, dry ice fumed in the air. Libidinal bass juddered the windowless walls. I was sinking shots at the bar with Dessie Roberts when she crackled in my periphery. She'd already seen me and was swanning over. We exchanged bashful smiles, smiles that knew exactly what was coming. (4)
The stories that make up Young Skins are generally linear in structure with little back story, focusing on the here-and-now of these characters' lives and the situations they find themselves in. In my own stories I have a tendency for resolution, a need to tie all the knots, as it were (which is probably why I tend to write such lengthy stories); but Barrett demonstrates that that is not always necessary. "The Clancy Kid," for example, at first seems to meander aimlessly, going from the bar in which the narrator and his friend Tug drink and theorize about the missing Clancy kid, to tipping over Marlene's fiance's car, to crossing an unrepaired footbridge "guarded" by a trio of children. What is this story about? I began to wonder at some point. But it's in the sudden ending in which the narrator, once safely across the bridge, turns around and sees that "the children are gone" (18), that the story unexpectedly and poignantly (and somewhat ineffably) answers that question and what the Clancy kid represents, sadly foretelling too how little will change in the lives of these characters. Young Skins is a powerful and inspiring collection, one that will sit next to me at my desk as I continue to work on my own stories for some time to come. If you have a collection of stories that similarly blew you away from cover to cover, I'd love to hear of it.