Although I’ve heard of him quite a bit afterward, when I saw Kevin Barry read a few months ago, his name was new to me. I was at his reading because he had been paired with Craig Finn from The Hold Steady, and I have a friend who wanted very much to see Craig Finn in conversation, regardless of his conversational partner. We were both pretty blown away by Kevin Barry. He’s Irish and the accent in combination with his animated reading style, more akin to storytelling than anything, was enticing. His banter with Craig Finn was great. It was kind of amazing how a guy from Ireland could nail Brooklyn so quickly. He said things like, “Isn’t everyone from Brooklyn moving upstate now?” and “In Berlin, we knew it was over when the Americans arrived.” We chatted after the event and I bought the book. As I’ll mention in all the blog posts I’ll write until forever, I was still reading Ulysses at the time, so I didn’t get to read Barry’s collection, Dark Lies the Island, until now.
I really liked the collection but also felt that I could only get so far with it and that, weirdly, was because of the language barrier. Barry makes heavy, wonderful use of the vernacular, something I appreciated but didn’t totally understand. Take this, from page 131: “‘Here’s another one I got to weasel you out of,’ he said. ‘And me without the arse o’ me fuckin’ kecks, ‘ay?'” Awesome, but what? I have no idea what that means. Which is kind of a great feeling for a sentence or two, but occasionally there were entire stories that felt like this. I read through a few of them and just had no idea what I was reading.
Just a page later, though, on 132, there’s this: “He said that I was his friend after all and he softened the word in his mouth — friend — in a way that I found troubling. It was the softness that named the price of the word.” That has a little bit of Irish inflection in it–“that named the price”–but here, not only could I understand what he was saying, I was floored by it. I have a feeling that if I spoke the same dialect, I would have felt the way I feel about those sentences about the entire book.
My favorite story was “Fjord of Killary.” It concerns a downtrodden inn-owner, trying to connect with his patrons as waters rise outside of his doors. It is slightly magical, completely unique, and ends with one of the most perfect last lines I’ve ever read.
I would encourage you to read this collection, and emphatically encourage you to go see Kevin Barry read next time he passes through town.