Friday 16 May 2014

Young Skins

Young Skins - Colin Barrett

With the release of Young Skins Colin Barrett seems to have attracted the 'new Kevin Barry' tag. It's never easy having to wear someone else clothes and Kevin Barry probably thinks it's a bit early for a new him as well. Barrett has gracefully acknowledged Barry's influence and Barry has anthologised Barrett so the town seems big enough for both of them.
I find it difficult at times to write about short stories. I tend to read collections over a long period and indeed, I have many that I have dipped into on numerous occasions without finishing and often return to favourite stories again and again. Plans to cover my short story reading have yet to come to fruition. One of the problems is that it can be very easy to give away too much about a story, it's not like a novel where you can tell a lot without really giving anything away.

Another is that I start to feel guilty as my target for last year was to write a few short stories but thus far I have only one 'finished' story and scraps of a few others. One of the difficulties in writing about this book is that it covers very similar territory to my own completed story so it's hard to choose whether to dismiss this out of hand as barely approaching the foothills of my own story or give up my own aspirations and just tell people to read this instead.

Anyway, I have read Young Skins over the past few months and I will go through it story by story and see what emerges from the recesses of my (poor) memory - one of the inspirations behind my blogging. I like being able to refer back to my blog when my memory refuses to give up any information about a book I've read.

The Clancy Kid
In a nondescript town on the Atlantic coast of Ireland two young men sit in a bar. Our narrator, Jimmy Devereux, is thinking about his ex, Marlene with whom fires are rekindled for brief flashes of the present while his large and troubled friend Tug thinks about the case of the missing Clancy kid.
Tug's theory that the Clancy kid was snatched by a pair of women seems like a knowing nod to Kevin Barry's tale Ernestine and Kit, in which two women snatch a child. Marlene also has a child by someone else and although he says he should be glad to have dodged "the paternity bullet" he is jealous and tips easily into anger.
 There is an acknowledgement that their lives are largely wasted and an acceptance that some elements are not to be questioned - that's what makes it bearable: "So much of friendship is merely that: the saying of nothing in place of something."
Barrett also introduces elements of fairy tale with a young boy pretending to be a king blocking access to an unstable bridge.
The fault in the bridge; the fault in the characters; stolen and lost children; life here is something that can easily go awry, characters are brittle and lacking direction. In this world is it any wonder that "We all have things we won't let go of."

Once again we are in a small town with a couple of young fellows and a girl who is ex but not gone completely. "Sarah Dignan. the daffy yoke Mateen once loved." The story is told from the point of view of the sidekick, who knew that "something was up as soon as Matteen steeped out the door of his house. Cue case in hand, I could see it, the thick wade to his gait, like he was walking through setting concrete."
Matteen shoots pool to make money. The bright, flat geometry of the pool table is easier to navigate than the topography of desire and violence that exists outside, and even rips through the peace of the baize.
The women are the objects of competing desires, as in the first story, and prove well able to look after themselves. With a bite that draws blood and an ambush in the woods this also has the spectral aura of the fairy tale.

The Moon
"'Galway's not that far,' said Martina, 'but it might as well be the moon for people like you.'"
"Valentine Neary, senior bouncer at the Peacock Bar and Niteclub," is an institution in the North Mayo town in which this story is set.
He has "been on the door for eight years, and could read the drink in people's faces unerringly."
He is also having sex with Martina, the owner's daughter, but they keep it private. She is home for the summer from college in Galway and is as restless as Valentine is settled.
Little happens, but there is a swelling apprehension of the world and the part these characters have marked out for themselves.

Stand Your Skin
All these stories have violence bubbling under the surface, if not boiling over. Eamonn Battigan, or Bat, as he is known, has been on the receiving end of a violent attack which has left him disfigured, suffering from tinnitus and in pain.
He works at a local hardware store and lives with his mother. He drives a Honda 150 and has "a scuzzy cascade of dark hair" all the way "to his ass."
He medicates with beer and the odd joint and lives a very quiet life with his mother. He "no longer socialises in town, no longer socialises full stop." His co-workers at the Maxol station, apart from the store manager Dungan are eighteen year old college student 'Heg' Hegardy and fifteen year old girl Tain Moonan.
When Bat heads out for Heg's going back to college party in one of the local bars and feels attracted to Tain, one senses that it won't end well. This is not a story that focuses on any dramatic event but I found it the most emotionally affecting of the stories, my initial impression up to this point being that the stories might be a little glib.

Calm With Horses
Here Barrett goes all out Noir in a story that takes up almost half the book. Dympna and Arm are another duo, Dympna the small town dealer and Arm, who used to box, providing muscle when needed.
Arm is the father of an autistic boy with a girl who is no longer his and who lives with her parents. Arm keeps up irregular contact and maintenance payments.
Dympna's uncles, two backwood's bachelors, grow the grass that Dympna sells. They are very unstable and possibly dangerous. When one of the men who sells drugs for Dympna is caught feeling up his young sister he has to be punished. Dympna tells Arm to inflict "'Light damage,'""'Lesson damage'." It is none to clear if this will satisfy the uncles.
This is a story overhung by a sense of impending disaster until it's no longer impending. I'd guess that the film rights for this one might be snapped up by some Tarantino wannabe.

In which an alcoholic returns to his home town - "It was go home or die, and home was an oblivion that was at least reversible." Sentiment leads the head teacher at his old school to find him some work as groundsman and part-time gym teacher.

He attends AA meetings.

He meets the mother of one of his pupils at an AA meeting. Her husband works in a mine in Siberia.

He keeps digging but the diamonds at the bottom of his mine are just illusions.

Kindly Forget my Existence
This story has more triangles than Euclid. Three guys in a bar, threesomes, three piece bands, three year olds, three quarter length coat, a triple-figure-date-tour...
A funeral, two old bandmates pay their last respects to a third, who both had had a relationship with,
They pay a distant, dishevelled salute to their shared past.


Barrett's characters are filled with nostalgia for things that are hardly worth remembering, waiting to be put out of their misery or pushing on in a fragile equilibrium.

At first I found it somehow distancing, the language creating a sort of distancing effect, drawing attention to itself but after re-reading and now looking back I find that it is the emotional temperature I remember, and the sense of life as a series of missed chances.

Like all those unfinished stories lurking on this computer...


  1. It has happened to me as well - working on something and then coming across something similar. I tend to write it anyway, as, in the end, you'll find it's still a very different story. I think we discourage ourselves because we compare.
    Anyway - this sound s like an in eresting collection. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who reads short story collections so slowly.

    1. Well Caroline, this one was quick by my standards. I have story collections that I have half read for well over a decade, I'd say. And I keep buying more so the chances of finishing them diminish.
      And this is an interesting collection...

  2. It's interesting to read your comments on reviewing short story collections. I, too, find it difficult to review short stories for exactly the reasons you mention; I find myself dipping into collections and then leaving them on the bedside table for months. And if I read too many in one chunk, I feel I'm binging.

    I haven't read Young Skins, but it sounds as if Barrett brings a strong sense of humanity to these stories. I especially like the sound of 'Stand Your Skin' and 'Calm with Horses.'

    Love, love, love that Sparks track, by the way!

  3. I am currently writing about a short story collection, Banished Misfortune by Dermot Healy. I think that, (like poetry) short stories need time and often rereads before they are fully appreciated. I am certainly reading the stories in the collection I'm reviewing more than once. I am committed to binging on Dermot Healy as I try to read all his fiction over the month so I feel in the right frame of mind to tackle a short story collection. Glad you like the Sparks track - one of the great singles, I think.