Dark Lies the Island is Irish writer Kevin Barry’s second collection of stories and his first book since winning this year’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his debut novel City of Bohane. He’s writer whose fortunes might have been quite different in the pre-Google era, “a screaming barny,” “brass monkeys weather” and “a fretful blow-in” being expressions not readily found in most dictionaries. Even dimensional lumber is here defamiliarized; in Ireland one gets hit over the head with a four-be-two, not a two-by-four, apparently.
Indeed, language—as a mirror to class, geography—is frequently a focus in these thirteen brief but delightfully sharp tales. In “Fjord of Killary” a struggling poet from the city who’s bought a 17th-century hotel on the coast used to jot down charming examples of local dialect until it became apparent not only that his patrons were dull and unfriendly (“I had quickly had my fill of these maudlin bastards”) but that their discussions never ventured beyond local road conditions.
Many of Barry’s characters have more than a passing acquaintance with drinking and drug culture and Barry, for his part, is often at his best when writing about them. The “three peaceful alcoholics” with whom the narrator shares a house in “Wistful England” are described as having “the look of bunched and tragic navvies, though all three worked in IT,” while “the house that he lived in was not a house in which he might casually talk of metaphors” but rather, one “in which to drink super-strength lager and cut yourself shaving.”
Amusing as those sentiments are, Barry’s lot aren’t what you’d call a bunch of cuddly old drunks. The thieves, goths, meth dealers, would-be bombers, and self-harmers he introduces us to all reside on the margins, figuratively and literally (two stories involve backwoods-dwellers).
The titular protagonist in “Dr. Sot”—his moniker, like the empty naggins (a bottle slightly smaller than a mickey) that roll about in his car, a testament to his dependency—has been abandoned by all but his most desperate patients. When he goes to visit a camp of “new-age travellers,” their children “pin-eyed and unpleasantly lively,” on the outskirts of town, it’s ostensibly to inform them of their health care rights, but he’s really there to catch a glimpse of one of the group’s female members. When the object of his interest fails to appear, he starts passing around a bottle and settling in for the night. Eventually, the group stops registering his presence.
“Beer Trip to Llandudno,” similarly, rubs humour against pathos in its revelation of the middle-aged crises that lurk behind the laddish camaraderie of a roaming club of beer enthusiasts: one character is getting divorced, one has been put (wrongly, he claims) on a sex offender registry, another has prostate cancer.
Barry is consistently funny despite the fact that his stories nearly always flirt with darkness. While some, like “Ernestine and Kit,” about a pair of peripatetic old ladies whose interest in young children turns out to be far from innocent, are out-and-out grim.
A few pieces are more like sketches than stories. This can be fine. One, in which the main event is a kiss that doesn’t “take,” has an endearing simplicity. Another, about a random act of cruelty against a schedule-obsessed, possibly autistic boy, on the other hand, struck me as inchoate.
Thrown in amongst the delinquents are a couple of characters determined to make the transition to kale-eating, wine-conscious aspirational living. Naturally, this sits awkwardly: Barry knows his own success depends on their failure.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor