courtesy of Barrett
Last Friday, I met Colin Barrett for a drink in the East Village. Barrett, who lives in Dublin, is here in New York for the week, to give a reading at the Irish Arts Center for his new, honors-grabbing debut book of stories, Young Skins.
I'd wanted a dive bar, somewhere reminiscent—however loosely—of the shabby, menace-tipped, daytime-drinking sinkholes in which his characters gather and fester. Like Barrett, I come from small-town Ireland; maybe this was a weird kind of homesickness I was combating, my wanting, suddenly, to be in a place with pool tables, where you could hear "the prompt gurgle of a ball rattlingly sunk." A monosyllabic barman, a counter lined with the " irrelevantly elderly," the stench of something suspect, even—I hoped for it all.
But this is Manhattan, early on a Friday evening. This place on Avenue A can, I know, offer only frat-boy nonsense and colliding cues. And anyway, it's not even open yet. When I get there, Barrett is outside, looking doubtfully at its listing shutters. Is pushing them aside and going in there anyway, I can see him wondering, somehow part of the deal? But no. We go around the corner to Dymphna's—which is the name of one of Barrett's protagonists, as it happens, a hard man-about-town with an old-fashioned woman's name. It's also the name of the patron saint of the insane.
Barrett's new collection was published in Ireland in 2013, and in the UK last year. Now it comes to the US bearing great honors such as the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. Comprising six stories and a novella, the book is entirely set in the fictional West Ireland town of Glanbeigh, which is small and depressed and in which the young people—the "young skins" of the title—live with little pleasure and with even less in the way of hope. Hope, you sense, would be characterized down Glanbeigh way as—to quote one of Barrett's few female characters—"pretty gay." Here, the light of a summer evening attains a "happy kind of melancholy"; that's about as hopeful as it gets. Fathers are absent and mothers are sozzled and the teens and 20-somethings are drinking themselves diligently into early embitterment and defeat. The jobs are minimum-wage, sex is a dull-eyed conveyor belt, and a young man named for the Irish mythological hero Cuchulain drives a pathetic old hatchback and doesn't even have his driver's permit yet.
Barrett is 33, an affable, lanky redhead with the kind of skin that blushes easily, although he seems to have little truck with embarrassment; it's rather as though his complexion, like his antenna as a writer, picks up on every drift and stir in an atmosphere. He was born in Canada, but grew up in County Mayo as the eldest of five boys; at ten, he was devouring what issues of the manga comic Akira he could get from the local newsagent, and imagining for himself the rest of the resultant "massive discontinuous narrative"; later, as a teenager, he bought Uncut, a British music magazine ("still out there, now bought by 45-year-old dads"), and read it "like a fucking religious text, like the Talmud." The book's pages included features on writers like Burroughs and Pynchon, which gave the teenage Barrett, already serious about his own intentions as a fiction writer, a steer on the kind of thing to read and to imitate: "It was like, 'Oh, so this is what you have to do, you have to write an 800-page cut-up-novel with pornographic aliens in it. Oh, OK.'"
Much of the praise bestowed on Young Skins has focused on its portrayal of recession-era Ireland, on the damage inflicted on the psychic sediment of generations by the glut and ransack that is the country's boom. But the truth is, boom or bust or the impossible—at least apparently from an Irish perspective— these characters would likely remain just the way they are; cornered and festered and either seething or scared. It goes deeper than any current set of circumstances. "It's not for any one big decisive reason," says Barrett, who left his own hometown for college in Dublin in his late teens. "I was interested in the people who don't leave a small town like that, who stay, and so they stay in a mindset. And what I know from a lot of guys is that some of them kind of wish they didn't have the interiority they do. They almost wish they were two-dimensional, that they were just all bravado and machismo, just these tough, laconic guys. But nobody is not burdened by the things you're burdened with, having an interior life. And it's such a strain to try and impose that pretense upon yourself the whole time. I was interested in that, in what it costs."
After college, Barrett worked for a number of years with a cell phone company, writing on the sly, and in his mid 20s he did a creative-writing master's at University College, Dublin, beginning the stories which would become Young Skins. The stories are marked by a sharpness of observation and of understanding that is often almost uncomfortable to encounter; this is the kind of fiction that knows far more about its characters than they would prefer it to know. For one overweight young man, "the management and conveyance of his bulk is an involved and sapping enterprise"; another has his erection revealed by two laughing girls in a forest at night, "sacked like a frowsy vagrant into the open"; another, older character, feels pride in the way his autistic boy now knows the way to the playground, but immediately then reflects that "even... a dog could learn to do that."
As for the women in Young Skins, well, they fare no better than the men—but in a way, they fare worse still, because they are depicted only in relation to these sorry fuckers, mothering them or sleeping with them or taunting them. In Glanbeigh, nobody has power, and circumstances, whether fresh or entrenched, have seen to it that nobody really knows how to take hold of their own fate, their own story, and slap shape onto it, but still, Barrett is conscious, he says, that the stories are male-centric. "I tried to redress the balance and write a few stories from the point of view of women, and they sucked. It's tougher. And you realize as you attempt it how many unexamined biases are there, and hopefully you work it out. But it's hard to do."
Colin Barrett's Young Skins is now on sale in the US from Grove Atlantic. On March 31, Barrett will read from Young Skins as part of the Debut Voices series at the Irish Arts Center in New York. Sam Lipsyte will moderate.
Belinda McKeon is an Irish-born novelist, now living in New York. Her second novel, Tender, will be published in the UK by Picador in June. Follow her on Twitter.