The stories in Colin Barrett’s first book, Young Skins (2013), assembled a shabby cast of bouncers and pool sharks, small-time gangsters and big-time losers from a dismal Irish town. The narrator of ‘Diamonds’ is typical:
I was not well. I was drinking, too much and too often, and had resolved to stop. In the city I had drank away my job, money, a raft of friendships, one woman, and then another. My cat, a princely tortoiseshell tom named Ruckles, succumbed to a heart attack after eating a phial of damp cocaine he’d unearthed at the bottom of my closet while I was out on another all-night jag. Ruckles’s passing got me to thinking, in a vague and wistful way, of dying by my own hand. I began to consider my hands in the starlight of bar-rooms – the brittle wrists and yellowed skin, the nicks and weals and livid pink burn marks of unknown origin – and realised I was already way along on that project. It was go home or die, and home was an oblivion that was at least reversible.
Home is somewhere in Co. Mayo: ‘a roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits’. All the stories in Young Skins appear to be set here (the name Glanbeigh is mentioned in two of them), although it could just as easily be a succession of similar places. The main diversions on offer are drink, drugs and the occasional nightclub hook-up or kebab shop battering. It’s a far cry from the milieu that interests Sally Rooney, who grew up in Castlebar, just twenty miles down the road from Ballina, where Barrett went to school (he lived in a village halfway between the two towns). When a character in one of the stories says his daughter is ‘off to Trinity’, it’s taken for granted that he’s joking. There’s an agreeable friction between the grittiness of social detail and Barrett’s more or less romantic approach to character and plot. In ‘Calm with Horses’, the novella-length piece at the heart of the collection, an ex-boxer called Arm leases his muscle to the drug-dealing Devers family, inflicting ‘lesson damage’ on employees who step out of line. He uses the money to support his ex-girlfriend and their severely autistic son. The story ends in a rush of cinematic violence, but it’s driven by Arm’s turbulent inner life, a mix of tough-guy self-assurance and clumsy longing.
Asked by an interviewer why all the stories in his first collection focused on young men, Barrett admitted it was ‘a limitation’. His new book shows his efforts to expand his range. Women are at the centre of a couple of the stories, but most are about men whose vitality has started to wane, sometimes as a result of age, sometimes because they’ve hit a personal or professional dead-end. Two of them are failing writers. Another is a former footballing prodigy, at one time the best player ‘on any pitch, at any level he played at’. Aged sixteen he left home to train at the Manchester United academy, but it soon became clear that his peers were developing ‘physically, technically and even in their mentality, at a pace he could not match’:
He did what he could to catch up. He stayed behind after training, booked double gym sessions, counted every last calorie that went into his body. At night, in the lonely bedroom of his Manchester digs, he listened to mindset audiobooks and studied academy-supplied video footage of his performances with prosecutorial dispassion, hunting only for the weak points and flaws in his game. But the gap between him and the other lads continued to grow. The coaches could see it. Danny had always played as the 10, the playmaker and attacking focus of the team, but they started moving him into other positions in order to, as they put it, ‘expand his game’. They tried him on the wing, but he wasn’t quick enough; up front, but he wasn’t big enough; at the back, but he did not have the defensive discipline.
Back in Mayo, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. ‘It was an awful thing,’ he thinks, ‘maybe the worst thing, to discover that in the end you were only good enough to get far enough to find out that you were not good enough.’ He stops playing football altogether, and since he can’t bring himself either to finish his education or to look for a job, he spends his days ‘lying on his childhood bed staring at the cruel, arrogant visage of Cristiano Ronaldo tacked to the back of the bedroom door’. Eventually his father bullies him into joining the family business, but that doesn’t do much for his self-esteem. His girlfriend complains that he’s ‘walking around like a zombie … You nod and agree to things, to everything, but the look on your face. I have no idea where you are, but you’re not here.’
He isn’t the only character in Homesickness who seems close to a breakdown. ‘Being depressed is like being in a dream,’ says another, shortly after he’s discharged from hospital. ‘The suspicion is that everyone you meet is actually depressed too.’ In the world of these stories, it’s a suspicion that doesn’t seem unreasonable. The protagonist of ‘Anhedonia, Here I Come’ thinks about killing himself, but can’t quite make up his mind: ‘Being alive was, if not the best thing, then at least an OK thing, an endlessly OK thing.’ An old man in a different story does try to kill himself, but bungles it; the last we hear, he’s in the ICU in Galway, ‘breathing on his own but still very frail, waking only briefly and not communicating when he did’. Elsewhere, the spectre of suicide is raised without being made explicit. One of the youngest characters in the collection, a 14-year-old boy, has lived with his older brother and sister ‘since the folks died off of cancer over consecutive summers’; he gets into fights at school and spends evenings locked in his room playing video games and eating Pringles. The story ends with him sitting in front of a paused game, contemplating the message on the screen: ‘DO YOU WISH TO CONTINUE?’ He doesn’t seem to be champing at the bit.
Young Skins made waves when it appeared, winning the Frank O’Connor award and the Guardian first book prize, and Barrett was hailed as one of the standout talents of his generation of Irish writers. In 2019 ‘Calm with Horses’ became the subject of a thrillerish screen adaptation, with Arm played by the smouldering, Brando-like Cosmo Jarvis (its US title was The Shadow of Violence). It’s hard to imagine something similar happening to any of the stories in Homesickness. Most of them expect you to lean right in to catch their drift. There isn’t a lack of incident, exactly – two attempted suicides, one non-fatal shooting and several sudden deaths occur over the course of the collection – but it all unfolds in a determinedly undramatic way. A man in his thirties suffers a fatal brain haemorrhage while ‘doing nothing more strenuous than sitting at home … watching the telly’. A woman in her fifties suffers a fatal heart attack ‘in the frozen food aisle, right next to a bin of cut-price Christmas hams the supermarket was selling off before they went out of date’. Another woman, Lorna, remembers that on a childhood holiday to Nice, she saw a man drop dead on the beach:
He was with a woman, presumably his wife. The wife was sitting on a towel with her knees drawn up to her bust and they were arguing in the injurious, teacherly cadences of the well-off British. The woman wanted to leave. The man said something about going back into the water. You do what you want to do, Margaret, Lorna remembers the man saying, and she could still hear him now, more than twenty years on, the low, patient note of deeply grooved spite in his voice. You always get to do exactly what you want to do. He was standing over the woman, and after a little while, he abruptly stopped his jeering and sat down on the towel next to hers … His mouth was ajar, and he wore a puzzled, mildly stunned expression, like a man on a train platform who at the very last moment delays for some unaccountable fraction and must watch the carriage doors seal shut right in front of his nose. He wasn’t going anywhere; it was all at once going away from him.
Lorna’s mother has no memory of this incident. Perhaps it didn’t happen after all. Perhaps the sight of someone displaying mild surprise – as if they’d slightly mistimed the doors on a train – just isn’t very memorable. The story concludes with another recollection, even less dramatic than the first. Lorna’s mother describes how years ago, at a wedding at a local hotel, she came across a neighbour (who has since died) rummaging around behind the reception desk. ‘Probably, there’s a completely mundane explanation,’ Lorna says. ‘The world is full of unaccountable things,’ her mother replies. As epiphanies go, it’s pretty modest. You could make the case that Barrett’s first collection was a bit too reliant on shock tactics and moments of climactic violence, but I’m not convinced he needed to go quite so far in the other direction.
Most of the stories in Homesickness take place in the vicinity of Ballina and Castlebar, but there’s also a lockdown story set in Toronto, where Barrett currently lives. Its narrator has latched onto a famous writer (‘by which I mean famous for a writer’) as a kind of surrogate father. His actual father is a feckless alcoholic who, whenever he reaches a point ‘where he was sufficiently remorseful and afraid and sick enough to want to stop’, calls the emergency services and threatens suicide, using his subsequent hospitalisation as a ‘de facto detox’. The narrator is looking after the famous writer’s dogs when he receives a call from the latest hospital: a nurse informs him that a routine colonoscopy of his father has revealed ‘a cluster of large and serrated polyps’. The shock of this news causes the narrator to lose one of the dogs. That’s more or less it: he leaves his father a sympathetic voicemail, but there’s no breach of the emotional ramparts. When he tells the famous writer about the dog, he’s rebuked ‘with wounding mildness’, which seems to be broadly the effect the story is going for. It isn’t unsuccessful at this, but the resulting wound is pretty shallow compared to any that Arm inflicted.
It would be churlish to hold Barrett’s discovery of the soft pedal against him: it’s had a salutary effect on his sentences, which have become snappier since Young Skins, less enamoured of fancy vocabulary and self-consciously poetic cadences, and in the right mood he can still deliver blasts of raucous entertainment. The best story in Homesickness follows three brothers, Rory, Eustace and Bimbo, who in spite of their ‘shortish’ frames and ‘massive arses’ are known to everyone as the Alps (a nickname that gives the story its title). The brothers work together (‘what they did was try things at a competitive rate. They painted, wired, plumbed, tiled, but where they excelled was in the displacement of the earth: digging holes, filling holes back in’) and spend most of their free time together (‘they ate too much takeaway, slept fitfully, downed vats of Guinness every weekend’). At the beginning of the story, they’re drinking in the bar of the Swinford Gaels football club; a young man enters with a sword, something the brothers take a while to notice, ‘because who expects a sword?’ He seems disorientated, and claims to have walked all the way from Foxford, eleven miles down an unlit road. They offer him a drink. ‘It would be the general opinion held of me I should not drink,’ he says, much to their amusement (‘That would be the general opinion held of most of us, I reckon’), and they insist on buying him a Guinness. Things soon get out of hand and by the end Rory is claiming he’s in a fit state to give the young man a lift to hospital: ‘I would say I drive better with drink taken … because I know I have to be more careful.’ It’s a wonderful performance, skilfully balanced between comedy and pathos, and a reminder of how dynamic Barrett can be when he gives his characters permission to cut loose. Rory, Eustace and Bimbo may have ‘bloodshot eyes, pouched necks and capitulating hairlines’, but there’s a big difference between them and most of the other characters in this collection: ‘the Alps still felt young in their souls.’