Colin Barrett’s Young Skins is the latest debut short story collection from Stinging Fly Press to garner a lot of attention and plaudits. And once again, Stinging Fly has launched a young writer well worth reading.
Young Skins opens with two guys in a pub, and most of the stories in this collection revolve around a similar dynamic. Sharing pints makes individuals reflective and these stoic, silent men open up as much as they can, which is very little, over a few drinks. The type of character that inhabits these stories is the twenty- or thirty-something small-town Irish Catholic male, the guy who didn’t have the points to go to college or the guts to flee to Australia, the man who stayed where he grew up because he had few other choices or else was deathly afraid of change. Colin Barrett knows these people inside out.
These young skins mostly engage in petty crime and deal with the problems of having dated or slept with ever local woman in their age group by a early age with an assumed bravado and appearance of equilibrium they don’t really feel. The sad truth is, they don’t have the imagination or self-confidence for any other life. The older men who appear in these stories are mainly criminals, bachelor farmers, or haunted alcoholics, not people to inspire anyone to change their ways or offer a map towards a different life.
On the surface there’s a sameness to these stories in a similar way that Kevin Barry’s stories can appear superficially similar, revolving around semi-criminal young men looking for a good time and not overly troubled by talkative consciences. While Barry elevates his tall tales to high art with narrative pizzaz and black humor, Barrett’s stories revolve around moments of uncomfortable reflection where the opportunity for a man to change his life appears for the briefest of moments: A sidekick finds himself the center of attention for two girls; two men meet after many years at the funeral of a woman they both loved; a big man about town has to deal with his on-again-off-again girlfriend getting engaged to somebody else; and, a criminal enforcer tries to help his boss out of a tough spot.
The long story “Calm With Horses,” is the most-ambitious, telling the story of two local tough guys who run the weed trade in one small town (all the stories in this collection are set in the same fictional small town). Arm, the muscle, attempts to inhabit the shape of a regular person, living at home with his parents, helping his estranged girlfriend look after their autistic child, and generally keeping his criminal activities strictly separate from the veneer of his “civilian” life. When he develops an interest in a woman who runs the animal therapy program his son attends, the possibility of change appears. This woman is an outsider, new to town, and he enjoys spinning the public version of his life story to her, you can see he almost believes it himself.
However, his boss and long-time buddy Dympna believes himself to be in a tight spot with his two crazy uncles, reclusive farmers who grow the weed Dympna sells. Arm impulsively tries to solve Dympna’s problem, but instead sets a murderous chain of events in process that will destroy any slim chance he has of leaving his criminal life behind.
Like the other stories in this volume, “Calm with Horses” shows that Barrett is an astute chronicler of the small-town Irish male, he understands the different pressures felt by men as they age, and the isolation felt when they remain single while their cohort marries and has children. He’s also a dynamite writer, able to describe alienation and the repetitiveness of small-town life without letting the writing become pedestrian — although there were a couple of times when I was jarred out from under the story’s spell because the writing was far more playful and the language much more colorful than the stoic characters it was describing. I know that may sound contradictory, but for the most part Barrett walks that fine line flawlessly.
While I enjoyed these stories immensely and feel the book wholly justifies the ecstatic reviews, I look forward to seeing Colin Barrett bring his focus to bear on more-varied subject matter and a larger range of character types in the future.
Stinging Fly is a fabulous magazine of new writing published in Dublin, and a small press that publishes some of the most exciting young Irish writers, including Colin Barrett.
If you enjoyed Colin Barrett’s stories, you should check out Kevin Barry’s latest collection, Dark Lies the Island…
Young Skins has been nominated for the 2014 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.
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