Colin Barrett’s writing immediately gripped me with his richly descriptive language and evocative dialogue. It’s a display of real talent when characters can rise fully formed off the page through distinct inflections in the tone of their dialogue so you can almost hear their voices in your ear. The stories in this debut book describe a cast of characters on the margins of Irish society ranging from wild teenagers to dispirited middle-aged men. Pubs are often the spots where these two diametrically opposed sensibilities cross paths – though very seldom do they meet. Each story invokes a particular place and set of characters struggling with internal conflicts which are brought to the forefront through events which are sometimes calamitous and other times subtly transformative.
‘The Clancy Kid’ follows two boys in their mid twenties who take revenge upon a girl for slighting one of them. They seem unable to move on with their lives as they don’t know what they should be striving for so they are trapped in repeating the same behaviour over and over. At one point the narrator remarks “There is the comfort of routine in our routine but also the mystery of that routine’s persistence.” The circular routines they go through night after night reflect their inability to emotionally progress and grow. Only at the end does the narrator seem ready to cross a literal and metaphorical bridge so that he can leave behind him the resentment and things he’s been clinging onto.
‘Bait’ focuses on another couple of close young male friends who stick to a routine. The narrator’s friend Matteen is a pool shark who makes money by luring people in to challenge him at the same pub every night. The narrator is drawn away from the lively pub by a couple of girls who seduce him like sirens and then seize him in a gripping and unsettling scene.
If men in some of these stories aren’t able to progress in their lives the character of Val in the story ‘The Moon’ is definitively left behind by a young woman he’s been seeing as she moves to go to university. There’s a really subtly written feeling of melancholy as he understands their relationship can’t progress beyond a certain point and there are boundaries which will always keep them at a distance from each other.
In ‘Stand Your Skin’ a man nicknamed Bat is haunted by an act of senseless violence perpetrated upon him by someone who “couldn’t stand being in his own skin, and couldn’t stand the rest of us neither” which has left Bat slightly impaired and his face scarred. He’s a solitary figure that has let his hair grown very long and is cautious in his social interactions – the horrendous attack upon him having been reduced to a barroom anecdote.
A seedier side of a small community is shown in ‘Calm with Horses’ where Douglas (nicknamed “Arm”) acts as a thuggish guard or “loyal skin” to a drug dealer named Dympna. This is the longest story in the book and it builds tension slowly where the threat of violent retaliation seems to hide around every corner. Points of horrific violence are paired against tender scenes where Arm cares for his mentally-disabled son Jack who likes to regularly go to a stable to spend time with horses as part of his therapy. Barrett beautifully describes nature and the sky particularly as a reflection of the character’s moods. When a man’s life is being threatened he looks up “at the scratchy stars and that cute old sphinx-faced cunt of a moon, up there watching and still keeping schtum after all these years.” This conveys all the anger and feelings of helplessness living in an impassive world that he experiences in a moment of high distress. Later on when Arm is in a state of crisis “the night sky looked like something precious and crystalline had been smashed repeatedly against it.” Here he perfectly evokes the state of mind of his character whose ordered life has been destroyed while giving a vivid portrait of the environment he inhabits.
Barrett describes the heart-crushing weariness of alcohol addiction in his story ‘Diamonds’ where a man’s best convictions to go sober are undone after an encounter with a woman he meets at AA. The mechanics of sliding back into the habit as well as engaging in an affair with a married woman whose husband spends most of the year away working in a mine are told in a way that seems so natural as to seem inevitable. All emotion and regret seem as totally blunted as his senses in his alcoholic state. Only wistful memories of an adolescence filled with athletic promise offer any brightness in his life, but hope now seems like an anonymous stranger. The tragedy of his fate is portrayed in stark realistic detail.
Two men sit in a pub drinking and try not to think too much about the funeral procession which will soon be passing by outside in the story ‘Kindly Forget My Existence.’ Feelings of loss hang heavy in the air as they make awkward conversation with the foreign barman who recounts his time engaged in the Bosnian war. While the men have a complex relationship based on years of being in a band together and sharing a lover, all feelings of resentment and bitterness seem not worth fighting for and can be left behind like the jacket one leaves behind as they depart to join the funeral march.
Each story in “Young Skins” explores masculinity from a different point of view. Raucous emotions often simmer beneath the surface and only find expression through violence or surly disengagement. However, melancholy is also often superseded by surprising turns of humour expressed in the characters lively dialogue. The image of skin – the surface of our bodies which is forever changing but always with us – repeats in varied and surprising ways throughout the book. The cumulative effect of this made me ponder the boundaries between our social lives and inner private lives. This is one of those books whose stories are so skilfully crafted and engaging I found it difficult to put down when going to bed at night.
Here is an interview with the author published in a county Irish newspaper where the stories are set: http://www.mayonews.ie/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=18947:interview-author-colin-barrett&catid=51:staying-in&Itemid=145