- 10 Nov 20
A Master At Work
As great as Barry’s novels are, the short story – and That Old Country Music offers pretty strong supporting evidence, as did his previous collections There Are Little Kingdoms, and Dark Lies The Island – might be his more natural home. He has said, in an interview with this very magazine, that he enjoys the immediacy of the form. It is that short, sharp hit, delivered with a surgeon’s precision, where not one single syllable appears superfluous, which marks Barry out as the finest short story song and dance man in the land.
Having sat through, and received the certificate of completion for, the highly-recommended and reasonably priced online course, Stuart Clark’s Reviewing Tips 101, I know that at this point I should pick out my favourites, say something about them, and head off. That’s what I should do, but That Old Country Music is like a treasured album, or a malnourished bit of livestock; it’s difficult to pick the best cuts.
It could be the house that drives women gamey in ‘Old Stock’, which had me logging on to myhome.ie at top speed. It could be Seamus Ferris being “sucked through a hole in the universe” in ‘The Coast Of Leitrim’, a story that has a most unexpected ending, given Barry’s output up to this point. It could be the last paragraph of ‘Extremadura (Until Night Falls)’, which has a line about attempting to cure the pain of love by drowning it in alcohol that will resonate with anyone whose ever suffered a kick in the arse of their heart, or lifted a bottle forlornly to their lips.
How about the girl’s escape in ‘Roma Kid’, or the effect of an old song in the old style in ‘Saint Catherine Of The Fields’? “I think all other art forms are just inferior forms of music, really. Everything aspires to the condition of music,” Barry told me in that same interview. It could even be the dodgy prospect of drinking an empire builder with the ridiculous Mother and Tony, or, or the notion that “this Ballinasloe is a very female place” in ‘Roethke In The Bughouse’. Seems accurate to me, I was born there.
If I have to pick one, it’s the cat and mouse, cop and robber game in ‘Ox Mountain Death Song’. This mini western, where as much is left unsaid as is said, is work that Hemingway himself – another fellow who knew his way around a typewriter – would have been proud of. You can almost imagine Barry as some sort of Keith Richards figure, removing extraneous notes, until he has it all pared back into the perfect riff. The two main characters are so expertly drawn that you feel you’ve known - and been avoiding - them for years. You can sense the ending from the first couple of paragraphs, but when it arrives, it still throws you a jolt. It is, quite possibly, the finest thirteen pages I have been fortunate enough to read all year.
This is the kind of book you want to start into again as soon as you’ve finished. Little wonder Aosdána gave him the nod. It is - and you’d expect nothing less from Barry - exceptionally good.