Kevin Barry, Fjord of Killary

Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers' Society, London

A propos of nothing really, except it's Irish and makes me laugh ruefully like Barry's story

I hadn’t heard of Kevin Barry when his short story published in The New Yorker this month, “Fjord of Killary“, was brought to my attention. Kevin Barry is an Irish writer, born in Limerick in 1969, and this makes him 40 (or 41 this year). The first person narrator of the story is the same age, which rather suggests an autobiographical element, but … that’s for Barry to say! On turning 40, he (the narrator that is, a poet and a self-confessed “hopeless romantic”) did the sea-change thing, that is, he bought a pub on the west coast of Ireland and left his city life behind:

I had made – despite it all – a mild success of myself in life. But on turning forty, the previous year, I had sensed exhaustion rising up in me, like rot. Before forty, you think that exhaustion is something like a long-lasting hang-over. But at forty you learn all about it. Even your passions exhaust you. I found that to be alone with the work all day was increasingly difficult. And the city had become a jag on my nerves – there was too much young flesh around.

This is, it turns out, a mid-life crisis story. It takes place one night, in his pub. There is a storm raging outside and the waters from the fjord threatened to flood the pub … as indeed they do to the point that our narrator, with his customers and staff, retreat to the upper floor. Despite the reference to the cannibalistic black-backed gull eating its mate, this is not a gothic tale (of “the night was dark and stormy” ilk), or one of those tragic Irish sea stories. Rather it is a somewhat comic, somewhat satirical tale, about a publican whose sea-change doesn’t quite seem to be working.

The satire is conveyed in language which is both mock-heroic and melodramatic: the skies are “disgracefully gray “, the locals are prone to “magnificent mood swings”, and the downpour is “hysterical”. Our narrator self-deprecatingly equates himself with the many poets who have tried to escape to the countryside, the, as he describes it, “hypochondriacal epiphany-seeker”. He even manages a sly dig at the English occupation – yet another disaster the pub has had to withstand! There is straight-tending-to-the-absurd humour too. If you have ever spent a few hours in an Irish pub on a rainy, rainy day, as Mr Gums and I did in Avoca three decades ago (can it really be so?), Barry’s description of the drinkers and their ability to keep talking regardless of what’s going on around them or who is listening will ring true! As our narrator says of his customers:

They were all nut jobs. This is what it comes down to. This is the thing you learn about habitual country drinkers. They suffer all manner of delusions, paranoia and warped fantasies…

And he doesn’t? The joke in many ways is on him, because while these people are getting on with their odd, messy, unique lives, he is floundering.

This is a wonderfully Irish story in its wry and sly but also rather absurd take on life.  As for the ending? Well, I won’t give that away, except to say that, with my little blue pen, I wrote against the last line, “Love it!”. Read it here, and see what you think.

8 thoughts on “Kevin Barry, Fjord of Killary

  1. Thank you for pointing me towards this. I printed it off and read it on the tube home after a long week, and I loved it! What a great story. I chuckled in quite a few places. I love how all the country regulars sit there and discuss the distance between towns in terms of travelling time — I have heard very many of these kinds of conversations, and not just in Irish pubs, but the English have a fascination with discussing roads and journey times too.

    And I identified with the main character, having turned 40 six months ago… and only coming to terms with it now! 😉

    • Oh kimbofo. I chuckled a lot too. It’s “only” a short story but I could have written a lot more about it. There’s also the “writer’s block” theme there BUT I wanted to focus on the mid-life crisis because I loved the way he did it. I’m glad you mentioned the discussion about distances…I also like the way he handled the description of the different conversations all going on at the same time. And I could have said more about the narrator and his wanting to be “mine host” but saying that his friends describe him as “funereal”! So much packed in to a little package.

      After writing this I did a little search on the ‘net – found one blogger who loved it, and a few who didn’t or were luke-warm, so am so glad you like it too!!

      And BTW, you are just a baby! 🙂

  2. This story was just (June 8,’11) read in NYC at the short story performance of Selected Shorts. A well-known American actor & director, James Naughton, did the reading in brogue and the audience loved it.
    So few of the world’s many stores can be chosen for this reading series; it’s an indication that this story is something special. Those who like it should also take a look at the photos of the Fjord of Killary posted on the web.

    • Oh thanks for telling us this Janice. I would love to have heard that reading. This story clearly has some standing: it has few comments on the post but it regularly gets hits which has interested me. Your comment here has confirmed what I had guessed. In fact a few short stories on this blog are among the post popular posts which flies against the received wisdom that people don’t like short stories! (Or, is it a case of students looking for ideas for their essays? I’ll never know probably.)

      • About short stories –
        They’ve long been a stepchild, snubbed by the literati in favor of novels. But the performance series I mention, Selected Shorts, readings of short stories, has been going strong in 3-4 parts of the U.S. for a long time. I’ve been attending for ten years. Lately, it’s joined by The Moth, personal short stories told, again, in various US places to standing-room audiences. Then there is This American Life, life stories on various themes produced for National Public Radio, not to mention the continuing annual publication Best American Short Stories. So I would say that people really do like short stories, the form is alive and very well, and it may be drawing in the not-so-inclined.

        • I agree to a degree (!) … I haven’t heard of performance of short stories here the way, for example we have poetry, but we have Best Australian Short Stories published here annually too, and short story collections of all sorts are regularly published. It’s more that I hear too many readers say “I don’t like short stories” and yet when they read them they are surprised by finding they like them.

  3. Quoting Mark Twain, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same Time.”

    We don’t like the idea of short stories (too numerous? too disparate?), but we may like individual short stories.

    • I suspect that’s partly right but I think some people want to get “lost” in a story, engrossed in the characters’ lives, but that’s not what short stories are about is it?

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