The Beautiful, the Broken, the Strange: Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry
“A storied past can project a rush of images to a suggestible mind,” Kevin Barry wrote for The Guardian in early 2011. The essay, “Once Upon a Life,” looked back half a dozen years to when Barry and his girlfriend were purchasing their first home, an ex-constabulary headquarters located in the reedy fields of County Sligo, Ireland. At the time, Barry worried that it “was a place to inspire overly limpid prose.” His first novel, City of Bohane, had not yet been published, nor could he have predicted the prestige that would come with it winning the €100,000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2013.
Today, roughly a decade after moving to County Sligo, Barry needs not fear limpid prose. If anything, the move to the lake house gave life — beery, gritty, foggy life — to the thirteen short stories in Dark Lies the Island, his most recent published work, newly released in the U.S. from Graywolf Press. Certainly the storied past of Sligo has put blades, both literal and metaphorical, in Barry’s location-rich writing, and no one now would venture to imply he not have a fantastically suggestible mind.
In Dark Lies the Island, Barry proves that his greatest talent lies in his comedic sense of timing; he may very well be the reigning prince of punctuation, the king of conveying the Irish voice. Barry’s grip on the actual, physical movement of the prose ranges from using paragraph breaks as beats between jokes to the back-and-forth banter of the loud population that inhabits the collection’s pages. (Fittingly, the story “Wifey Redux” features an actual exclamation point caper).
The best example of this linguistic agility comes in the highlight of the collection, “Fjord of Killary,” in which a wry narrator operates a flooding 17th century inn. Barry orchestrates the story’s wild transitions and switchbacks like a kind of manic switchboard operator:
“I looked out the landing window as I dashed along the corridor to get some CDs from my room — this was a bad move:
Seven sheep in a rowing boat were being bobbed about on the vicious waves of Killary. The sheep appeared strangely calm.
I picked up lots of old familiars: Abba, The Pretenders, Bryan Adams.
I pelted back to the function room.
‘We’re here!’ I cried. ‘We might as well have a disco.’”
In another standout of the collection, “Beer Trip to Llandudno,” Barry animates members of the Real Ale Club, who are traveling to Wales on their July outing. Barry doesn’t tip his hand to outright tell you it’s funny — all of his humor is delivered straight-faced — but the middle-aged men’s serious approach to their work is perfectly timed:
“‘I’ve had better Tram Drivers,’ opened Mo.
‘I’ve had worse,’ countered Tom N.
‘She had a nice delivery but I’d worry more about her legs,’ said Billy Stroud, shrewdly.
‘You wouldn’t be having more than a couple,’ said John Mosely.
‘Not a skinful beer,’ I concurred.
All eyes turned to Everett Bell. He held a hand aloft, wavered it.
‘A five would be generous, a six insane,’ he said.
‘Give her the five,’ said Big John, dismissively.
I made the note. This was as smoothly as a beer was ever scored. There had been some world-historical ructions in our day. There was the time Billy Stroud and Mo hadn’t talked for a month over an eight handed out to a Belhaven Bombardier.”
Yet other stories in Dark Lies the Island repress a deep feeling of dread beneath their loony exteriors. “A Cruelty” reads like a modernized story from James Joyce’s Dubliners, in which a stranger accosts the young protagonist; another story, “Ernestine and Kit,” follows two sixty-year-old women on an increasingly sinister mission.
The pieces that work the best, though, find the middle ground between the laughter and the darkness. One is “Doctor Sot,” in which an alcoholic doctor goes on an Outreach visit to see the new-age travelers of rural Slieve Bo. Likewise, in the titular “Dark Lies the Island,” nothing much externally occurs — Sara, home alone, contemplates cutting herself while her hip father texts her from a bar in Granada — yet when it concludes in the damp night of County Mayo, Barry lingers on the impression of something lonely and uncharacteristically, though not unpleasantly, still. And if his emotional control of the story doesn’t impress readers, then who other than Barry could get away with describing islands as “inky blobs of mood?”
“She slid the glass doors and stepped outside and she looked back into the lit space — a magazine shot. Minus people. She turned and looked out beyond the expanse of the bog, where the ground fell away, so quickly, and there were low reefs of dune, and then a descent to superlative, untenanted coast. Ach year it lost about a metre to the Atlantic — it was coming towards the house, the water. This was Clew Bay, in County Mayo, and hundreds of tiny islands were strewn down there. They were inky blobs of mood against the grey water. It was a world of quiet dimly lit by the first stars and a quarter moon. The house behind her was silent as a lung.”
Barry’s is certainly a beautiful, broken, and strange world but readers are warned: this beauty belongs to an Ireland of trailer parks, chain smokers, and criminals. Barry does not bother to tidy up his characters’ views or language; women and racial minorities in particular do not fare well. Dark Lies the Island is thoroughly an Irishman’s world: coarse and swampy, where men contemplate passing the nights in caves — and yet it is also capable of producing moments of epiphany and delight. And while some shine brighter, or simmer darker, than others, the thirteen stories in Dark Lies the Island confirm Barry’s place among the foremost writers of contemporary Ireland. If there is a message beneath its dirt and its chaos, it might be this: County Sligo is here to stay.
[Editor’s note: read “Wifey Redux” from Dark Lies the Island in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading]
by Kevin Barry