Dark Lies the Island

by Kevin Barry

Cover image

Publisher: Greywolf
Copyright: 2012
Printing: 2013
ISBN: 1-55597-651-4
Format: ARC
Pages: 185

Buy at Powell's Books

This is a literary short story collection by a mainstream Irish writer, rather far from my normal fare. It was the second book in a shipment of Powell's Indiespensable, which is generally (when there is one) a proof or Advanced Reading Copy of something relatively obscure. I'm not really the target audience, not being much of a short story aficionado, but the whole point of doing this Indiespensable experiment is to stretch my reading range.

First off, as I would generally expect by mainstream fiction, the quality of the writing is excellent. One thing I particularly like about Barry is that he's refreshingly and unhesitatingly profane. His characters curse like I expect people to curse, some of them at the drop of a hat, and for me it gives a feel of solid realism to his dialogue. He's also very good with eye dialect, giving the impression of accents without making the text hard to read.

Some of these stories I liked a great deal, rather more than I had expected. But if there was a general undermining flaw for me, it was that I prefer stories that go somewhere, that have a plot or lead up to a definite point. Some of Barry's do, but a lot of them seem more vignettes or just scenes, sketches of characters, that drift off without resolution. I can admire those as writing exercises, but for me they don't fill the desire I have when I sit down with a story.

I'm not sure how useful these reviews will be, given that I don't have a lot of mainstream fiction background to compare them with, but here are some reactions, for whatever they're worth.

"Across the Rooftops": This is one of those sketches, but it's one of the best of them. It's a single moment on the rooftops, an attempt to capture the moment of possibility around the first romantic overture. It's sadly quite conventional in gender roles (nervous man initiating, woman as relationship gatekeeper), but apart from that it's very well-written. This kind of thing is normally not to my taste, but Barry does such a great job capturing the sense of uncertainty and the sharp focus on detail that I couldn't help but like it. (7)

"Wifey Redux": This is by far my favorite story of this book. I think it's both hilarious and brilliant, right from the starting line.

This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my face pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo's bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear — this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas Road in Dublin.

It's the story of a marriage and how it changes over time, but also the story of being a father and his baffled, flailing reactions to his daughter's sexual explorations. But that's not what makes the story. What makes the story is what leads up to the arrest at the end, which had me laughing out-loud in delight. Barry is great at writing a sort of devilish humor; I wish more of the collection was like this. (9)

"Fjord of Killary": This is another one of the ones I enjoyed. It's about an author who buys a hotel (with a bar) on the fjord of Killary thinking that the local culture and contact along with the wild beauty would inspire his poetry. At the start of the story, he's thoroughly sick of both the climate and the people, and the collision between his idyllic dreams and the reality, as well as his acerbic first-person complaints, is quite entertaining. A huge storm and resulting flood provides the conflict and impetus for change, and a few moments of humor in the understated local reactions. I thought the closing epiphany was a bit too obvious and expected, and the ending didn't quite work for me, but it has some good moments. (7)

"A Cruelty": Here's where the collection started losing me. This is still well-written and closely observed, but in the case of this story, I wish it weren't, since I found it extremely uncomfortable. The viewpoint character is vulnerable to an encounter of unalloyed nastiness. I'm sure that's the point, but, similar to how I avoid horror, it's the sort of story I'd rather not read. (3)

"Beer Trip to Llandudno": This was my second-favorite story of the collection. It's about a group of men who take periodic beer-tasting trips and rate beers. They're just normal men, from a variety of backgrounds and professions, and I thought Barry did a great job capturing the sort of camaraderie that comes from long association with a hobby. That includes, here, the awkward limits on what one talks about and the tendency to use the hobby as a shield from anything that drifts into less certain territory. I thought the story suffered somewhat from not having much of a plot or conclusion, but that's also necessary from the setup. This group of people isn't actually going to solve problems, but will be there for each other in their own way. (8)

"Ernestine and Kit": Another very dark story, although that's not quite as obvious at the start. As with "A Cruelty," it's well-written but disturbing and lacks any sort of positive resolution. Here, I think Barry went a bit far into portraying people who are a large part of the popular imagination but who are exceptionally rare in reality. It's the kind of story that, at least for me, plays badly with my brain's threat analysis: too memorable for the level of actual risk, and feeling like it was playing a bit too much with popular boogeymen. (4)

"The Mainland Campaign": This one was just too subtle for me. Some of the summaries for this book hint at a meaning for the story that I didn't pick up at all on my first reading. On re-reading, I suspect that analysis is right, but even re-reading the story with that interpretation in mind (this is the sort of story where I'm not sure the average American would pick it up on first reading, but others might), I still don't understand exactly what happened. I think some mainstream writing, and some short stories, tends to err on the side of subtle. (4)

"Wistful England": Another one that's way over on the sketch of a moment side of stories. Unlike "Across the Rooftops," it failed to make any impression on me whatsoever; I had to skim it just now to remind myself of any details at all, and by the time I edited this review for posting, I'd forgotten it again. I think it was aiming at capturing a mood, but the mopey viewpoint character didn't mean anything to me. (3)

"Doctor Sot": This is another odd one, and I'm not quite sure what I think of it. Either it's another character sketch without much of a plot, or the plot was too subtle. The protagonist is a rather unlikable drunk who doubles as a small town's incompetent doctor. The story involves his encounter with a local sort of hippie encampment, which is moderately interesting even though I couldn't stand the man. Then it leads to an encounter that clearly meant something, but which was entirely lost on me. (4)

"The Girls and the Dogs": And from an absence of plot back to the deeply disturbing. This story is about a moderately unlikable drug dealer who gets refuge from an extremely unlikable crazy person in a weird relationship with a woman and her sister. (As is sadly typical, polyamory only makes an appearance when the author wants to paint a scenario that's utterly fucked up and psychotic.) There's a pseudo-fantasy element here in that the characters talk about spells, but I think the only spell involved is authorial fiat to create a deeply broken and sick game that plays into a host of negative stereotypes. Despite myself, I did get drawn into the suspense of the story (Barry's undoubtedly a good writer), but it left me feeling dirty on several levels. (4)

"White Hitachi": Finally, another story that I liked, although not as good as the ones earlier in the collection. This one follows a con man and two-bit thief as he gets his brother out of lockup and tries to resolve, or at least stay ahead of, various problems in his life. Again, no real ending, but I thought Barry did a good job at taking a snapshot of a life from a perspective that I don't read much in literature (along with all the sexism and racism that comes along with it). It sort of drifts off rather than ends (although the last sentence is a great bit of characterization), but I found it oddly enjoyable. (6)

"Dark Lies the Island": I'm not sure what to make of this. It's another character sketch, a moment of deep psychological significance for a character, floating somewhat alone but described in detail. But the character is a girl struggling with cutting, from a male author whose other stories did not fill me with confidence in his handling of female characters. Barry makes this psychologically believable, but I'm a little nervous about trusting his portrayal of that mindset. It's also, again, just a bit too subtle; I had a hard time getting an emotional feel for how the events of the story connect. (5)

"Berlin Arkonaplatz — My Lesbian Summer": The final story of the collection is fairly typical of the problem I had with most of it. It seems reasonably well-written, I had a hard time connecting with the protagonist or understanding his motivations. It looks at a slice of life with which I have no familiarity at all (and is interesting for that reason), but I don't quite trust the story enough to submerge in it. Barry seems to write a lot of protagonists who seem aimless, befuddled, or just largely out of control, and I like a bit more agency in the primary character. Silvija is an interesting character, even shown from another's perspective, but the story is almost purely observational: showing her without comment, without obvious motive, and mostly without plot. It's strangely compelling, but not quite compelling enough that I'd actually seek it out. Which, really, is the whole book in a nutshell. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-06-30

Last modified and spun 2016-12-25