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.