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town and country

16 november 2019

Faber's series of "New Irish short stories" is an outstanding way to discover new writers, and to keep up with some established ones.

Given my scattered and dilatory reading habits, I am several years behind on the Faber series, and at that I'm only reading some of the volumes now because I happened on them at deep discount in a used-book store.

Most of the stories in Kevin Barry's Town and Country (2013) are realistic and conventionally-told, and I'll survey them in a while. The less-conventional are less consistently strong, but that's the way of art: take risks and you'll usually fail. On the other hand, avoid risks and you'll usually fail too. It's more a matter of route than payoff, because a conventional story can be just as moving and skillful as one that innovates.

Among the risk-takers in this volume are Julian Gough, who offers a magical-realist take on processed, heavily-calculated pop music in "Earworm," and Paul Murray, who opts for an arch story of a 10-year-old's friendship with Satan Himself ("How I Beat the Devil"). Still odder is Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's "Summer's Wreath," which turns out to be a historical fiction about Katherine Mansfield, of all people. "Summer's Wreath" is intriguing because little in its telling fixes it in Mansfield's youth (the story must be set sometime in the early 1900s, the decade that is). So you read along mentally placing things in the 2010s only to tip eventually that you are reading about more than a century before.

Midway between convention and risk, I'd place two strongly-wrought stories: "Barcelona" by Mary Costello and "While You Were Working" by Neasa McHale. The former is traced over James Joyce's great story "The Dead," as a couple fences over a long-lost love of the wife's. The latter, McHale's first published story, is a very skillful piece with the classic form of something by O. Henry, or maybe Maupassant in his lighter moods, if he had any. A wife plans to leave her husband without much preamble, while he's off at work one day – but things don't go to script.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir's "Joyride to Jupiter" breaks ground in some ways with a sympathetic portrait of a man caring for a wife who has gathering dementia; but the story turns melodramatic. The rest of the good stories in the collection are more familiar slices of life, but some are very well-turned.

Along the way we see the frustrations of a pianist-turned-bartender (Eimear Ryan, "The Recital"); the sojourn of an American woman traveling across Ireland man by man (Molly McCloskey, "City of Glass"); the vicissitudes of an office assistant (Sheila Purdy, "The Ladder"); the titanic depression of a divorced man facing cancer alone (Michael Harding, "Tiger"); the methodically-expressed libido of a teenage girl (Lisa McInerney, "Saturday, Boring"); and the strange encounter of a woman and a photographer (Dermot Healy, "Images").

The best story in the volume, for my money, is Colin Barrett's "The Clancy Kid." The narrator, monumentally hung over, recounts some sketchy events of the Sunday after his latest pub crawl. The focus is his violent but devoted friend Tug, who is as likely to tip somebody's car over because he doesn't like their looks as he is to take a deep concern in the life of a stranger. In this case the stranger is the title character, a boy mysteriously lost on a school trip to Dublin, who now figures in every story about an encounter with an unfamiliar child. "The Clancy Kid" is strongly-written, enigmatic, and energetic: a model short story, in part because it seems inspired by so many other good models, without following them to the letter.

Barry, Kevin, ed. Town and Country: New Irish short stories. London: Faber, 2013.