That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry review – wild, witty stories

The west of Ireland teems with canny characters and vivid language in the author’s third collection

Kevin Barry’s darkly glimmering third collection of short stories arrives prefaced with a quote from the film-maker Jane Campion, all about the romantic impulse. “It’s a heroic path and it generally ends dangerously,” she cautions. That isn’t always the case for the protagonists of these 11 tales. One character, himself a writer, steps back just in time. Another’s lot turns out to be happiness – the single outcome he professes himself unable to handle. But by and large, passion proves hazardous for the loners and oddballs who drift through Barry’s forceful landscape.

This is the west of Ireland, its wild emptiness teeming with lore and legend. As a publican says of his 10-streetlight town: “the winter bleeds us out here”. Come fairer weather, there’s the billowing whitethorn blossom to worry about, laden with doomy superstition. And what of the romance of the place? That gets short shrift, too. “The silly, silly moonlight,” sighs one man, rueing the calamity that comes from its enchantment.

He is Sergeant Brown, whose forebears all “drank themselves into the clay of the place”. He appears in Ox Mountain Death Song, a story whose steady momentum carries it to an unexpected climax as he pursues a felon named Canavan, himself one of long line of ferret-grinned good-for-nothings. As Brown notes of the Canavans: “they had for decades and centuries brought to the Ox elements that were by turn very complicated and very simple: occult nous and racy semen”.

And there it is, that canny laughter – vital, knockabout and unpredictable, it grounds in earthy reality the folksongs and fables that flit through the gloom here. Elsewhere, it adds a soulful complexity, enabling truths to disguise themselves as throwaway lines. Here’s the heroine of the title story, for instance, 17 years old and pregnant by her mother’s shiftless lover, gazing at herself in a car mirror: “She had a face on her like a scorched budgie. She detested herself.”

Written over the course of eight years, these stories aren’t quite of equal strength, but throughout, their language is exhilarating, its verve evoking the very best of Barry’s compatriots while further carving out a territory that’s all his own.

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry is published by Canongate (£14.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply


Hephzibah Anderson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry – review
Irish author Kevin Barry blends the strange and mundane to startling effect in his short stories, writes Henry Krempels

Henry Krempels

07, Apr, 2012 @11:01 PM

Article image
Kevin Barry: ‘I want to get that thread of menace’
The novelist on being surprised by his creations, Ireland’s weird west coast, and why he couldn’t finish Madame Bovary

Sean O’Hagan

22, Jun, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Kevin Barry: ‘I want to go as wild as I can within my stories’
The City of Bohane author on Ireland’s radicals, escaping the internet, and why he chose to write about John Lennon

Anita Sethi

08, Nov, 2015 @1:00 PM

Article image
Town & Country: New Irish Short Stories edited by Kevin Barry – review
This fourth collection takes in plagiarism, insurance fraud, pubs, hacking, death and piano recitals, writes James Smart

James Smart

05, Jul, 2013 @3:24 PM

Article image
Uncommon Type: Some Stories review – Hanks, but no thanks
With one exception, Tom Hanks’s stories could be the work of Forrest Gump himself

Alex Preston

15, Oct, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Burning Ground by Adam O’Riordan review – scorching stories
The poet’s first story collection draws emotional heat from the Californian landscape

Anita Sethi

29, Jan, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
The High Places review – beautifully off-kilter short stories
Former Guardian first book award nominee Fiona McFarlane springs some surprises in her impressive first collection

Lucy Scholes

22, May, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
Evening in Paradise: More Stories by Lucia Berlin – review
A second posthumous selection of stories by the author of A Manual for Cleaning Women shines with compassion and dark wit

Johanna Thomas-Corr

20, Nov, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Last Stories by William Trevor review – the master’s final dispatches
This posthumous collection about ‘long-dead marriages’ and ‘fizzled-out affairs’ is full of the Irish writer’s formidable craft

Anthony Cummins

27, May, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken review – delightful domestic stories
The American author’s latest collection takes a brighter turn as it delves into families ‘of all flavours’

John Self

08, Jun, 2021 @9:30 AM