Kevin Barry: Portrait of the Young Artist in a Poncho
Will Chancellor in Conversation with the Fun-Loving Author of Beatlebone
Inspired by the arcade in “Atlantic City” from Kevin Barry’s first collection of short stories, I thought it would be fun to talk to the writer over pool and ping pong and jazz and what have you at Fat Cat in the West Village. We showed up; they were closed. So we found a coffee shop instead and talked over the clatter. Kevin Barry was visiting New York for two days to promote his new novel Beatlebone and managed to find time before the launch at Greenlight Bookstore.
Chronology gets loose real quick when writers start talking about their work. A novel is either a decade of filling an empty crater with an eyedropper until it’s a magical new lake or it’s a few weeks in a lightning field, each bolt captured by the writer’s infinite capacities and conveniently transmitted for your consumption. As such, whenever I hear a writer mention real-world time, I politely smile and nod—and hope he or she will do the same in return.
“August 13th, 1999. I think about it as my writer’s birthday,” said Kevin Barry. I looked up from my notebook and he was dead serious. Both precise and credible.
Barry would have been 30 at this time. His early twenties were spent in Limerick doing rave promotion and court reporting. He shuffled between London, Scotland and Dublin in his late twenties, writing theater reviews, music reviews, and “a weekly column here and there.” (“Here” was the Irish Examiner, “there” was the Sunday Herald in Glasgow.) Barry sees this apprenticeship as, “the old fashioned way into books, the Damon Runyon path of working your way up through newspapers and magazines.” Barry was writing enough journalism to make rent, but “knew that I wasn’t using a part of my brain that I wanted to use, which was that murky subconscious place.”
By his late twenties, Barry was writing bits of fiction, but in an undisciplined way. He then took a leap, leaving the papers. “I realized that I needed to get poor for a while. Because in journalism you’re using a lot of the same muscles, but you’re fucking tired from it. I actually gave up a lot of my freelance assignments for a summer and moved out of my apartment in Cork City. I bought a little 12-foot caravan and put it on a beach in West Cork and tried to write a novel.”
This novel didn’t ultimately pan out, but “something fundamentally changed during that summer I spent in the caravan. I realized you could get a novel-shaped thing together—quite quickly, really—over a few months. And it wasn’t about having the fundamental talent required for it, it was going to take so much work. It was going to be the first thing I did every day. And since then it has been. I can date it precisely. A particular day in August, 1999, when I was down in West Cork on the Beara Peninsula and I said to myself, Are you gonna fucking do this or not?”
In his early thirties, Barry began writing stories and eventually ended up with a few he thought were good enough to submit, albeit with trepidation. In 2007, Stinging Fly Press, a small but discerning imprint for Irish and international short story writers, published Barry’s first collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, which would go on to win the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.
The first sentence of the collection’s lead story, “Atlantic City,” evinces a great musicality: “A July evening, after a tar-melter of a day, and Broad Street was quiet and muffled with summer, the entire town was dozy with summer, and even as the summer peaked so it began to fade.” Each word that grabs your attention also captures the mood with its sound: tar-melter has those sticky r’s, muffled sounds humid, dozy is twice as onomatopoetic as “yawn.” The word summer appears three times and we can almost see Barry chewing on it like bubble gum, trying to get the biggest pop.
One of the first questions I asked Barry was about the tension between trusting images and trusting sound. The previous night, in conversation with Holly George-Warren at the Irish Arts Center, Barry said that he was “willing to change the meaning of a sentence for the sake of the sound.” And, no surprise, a night’s sleep hadn’t altered his schema: “I think there are fundamentally two types of readers. There are readers who process image by image. They’re seeing it, and then there are people who read with their ear—and I think the latter variety are the ones who tend to go for my writing, and neither approach is right or wrong. I definitely read with my ear, which is why I tend to go with the writers who write in the high style, big fucking performances on the page, that’s what I’m drawn to.”
In 2010, The New Yorker brought Barry to American readers’ attention by publishing the story, “Fjord of Killary,” which appears in his second collection, Dark Lies the Island. We follow a desiccated poet who thinks a move to the rural coast could do wonders for his versifying. And just three sentences into the story we see the kind of eye/ear dichotomy that Barry was alluding to above: “The night in question, the rain was particularly violent—it came down like handfuls of nails flung hard and fast by a seriously riled sky god.” The imagery here is zany, almost Looney Tunes. It’s not a wholly original picture—a writer who looks closely at the cliché “It’s hammering outside” might also arrive at the link between nails and rain. Compare Barry’s imagery to Derek Walcott’s in Omeros, “The sky cracked asunder / and a forked tree flashed, and suddenly that black rain / which can lose an entire archipelago / in broad daylight was pouring tin nails on the roof, / hammering the balcony.” Walcott’s imagery, particularly the “black rain,” conveys the meaning of a tropical storm. Whereas Barry relies on his ear, capturing the speed and monosyllabic thump of hard rain with “nails flung hard and fast by a… riled sky god.” Right in the middle of those monosyllables is seriously, which serves as a sort of caesura, a brief pause before the volley and burst of riled sky god. That seriously is doing double duty, breaking the drum of rain for an instant and grabbing the reader’s elbow to let her know that the narrator’s foremost concern is her attention. You can imagine that a lot changed in the imagery to accommodate those last three monosyllables riled sky god—Barry doesn’t seem the type to begin describing a rainstorm with the image of angered divinity. The ear wins out over all, even theology.
Barry’s biggest performance in terms of setting and plot was constructing a Gotham in West Ireland circa 2053 and letting rival gangs test the limits of havoc. This would be his debut novel, City of Bohane. His aforementioned literary birthday of August 13th will resonate with readers of Bohane, as it’s the date of the August Fair, a Bloomsday of sorts for central characters Logan and Immaculata and the date when the many strands of the plot wind together like ribbons in a maypole dance.
Fair Day, as we always say in Bohane, is a day for the youth.
And they lace into it like pagans.
August the 13th…
We whisper of it for months in advance, and we are as long again recovering.
This novel’s Bloomsday is meant to capture a world with all the fidelity that Joyce brought to Dublin on June 16th, 1904—it’s just that Barry presents a speculative vision of future Ireland. As Greg Londe noted in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Barry’s work rejiggers the spatial and linguistic verve of Joyce’s small metropolis for an Ireland that has finally known immigration after centuries of depopulating emigration. He multiplies the accents but still records the sound of voices in chance collision on streets where gossip travels fast.” The air of Bohane moves with whispers, expanding and contracting as rumor compresses the story.
Bohane is, as Barry will admit, a dialogue-heavy novel. The chapters are short and, after the scene is established, often read like a screenplay with particularly detailed accounts of costume—Ol’ Boy’s “high-top boots with the heels clicker’d, a velveteen waistcoat and an old-style yard hat set at a frisky, pimpish angle” or “dove-grey stovepipe hat up top, leaning westerly, with a delicate length of crimson scarf tied around it,” could easily herald Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York. But unlike a screenplay trading on the historical veracity of dialogue, for which there are numerous historical societies to consult, Bohane’s characters speak a fictional patois, which means most the dialogue is sui generis.
Like wandering through 1970s Kingston in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, with every alleyway you take in Barry’s Bohane, the easier it is to confuse their dialect for your own. Here’s local boss Logan Hartnett interrogating a bartender named Tommie the Keep:
‘So is there e’er a bit strange, Tommie?’
There was a startle in the Keep for sure.
‘Strange, Mr H?’
Logan with a feint of innocence smiled.
‘I said is there e’er a bit of goss around the place, Tommie, no?’
‘Ah, just the usual aul’ talk, Mr Hartnett.’
‘Who’s out for who. Who’s fleadhin’ who. Who’s got what comin’.’
Logan leaned across the counter and dropped his voice a note.
‘And is there any old talk from outside on Big Nothin’, Tommie?’
The Keep knew well what Logan spoke of—the word already was abroad.
‘I s’pose you know ‘bout that aul’ talk?’
‘What talk, Tommie, precisely?’
‘’Bout a certain…someone what been seen out there.’
‘Say the name, Tommie.’
‘Is just a name, Mr Hartnett.’
‘Say it, Tom.’
Keep swiveled a look around the room; his nerves were ripped.
‘The Gant Broderick,’ he said.
Logan trembled, girlishly, to mock the name, and he drummed his fingertips a fast-snare beat on the countertop.
‘First the Cusacks, now the Gant,’ he said. ‘I must have done something seriously fucking foul in a past life, Tom?’
Tommie the Keep smiled as he sighed.
‘Maybe even in this one, Mr H?’
‘Oh brave, Tommie. Well done.’
Kevin Barry’s dialogue not only reflects character, so as to make attribution largely redundant, but advances it through tension. The nearest example I can find is Martin McDonagh. When I ask Barry if he’s picked up a thing or two from McDonagh’s plays or scripts, he says that for some reason he hasn’t seen much yet—but he is excited for McDonagh’s new play Hangmen, which just opened in London. To my mind, dialogue is Barry’s greatest gift and makes him a natural playwright—an easy suggestion as he’s currently at work on a play, in verse.
Unlike the dialogue in Bohane, the lines in most of Barry’s short stories are too perfect to be made up. The poet in “Fjord of Killary” keeps a “surreptitious notebook under the bar” to capture the rural idiom. I asked Barry how much of his dialogue is found dialogue.
“It depends on what I’m writing, really. In ‘Fjord of Killary’ certainly a lot of it is found—which is the polite way of putting it. And certainly I scratch down things from life all the time. I eavesdrop a great deal as I go around because you never get it down as well on the page as you would if you hear it. When something feels nice and easy on the page, rest assured that there’s been rock-breaking labor going into it. I spend the longest on dialogue.
You have to let the rush of inspiration come down and then you have to edit it, cut it down and shape it. Then it becomes too smooth. And you have to go back in and rough it up again—put the knuckles and elbows and toes back into it. And it can be a tedious fucking process where you’re going through something 70, 80, 90 times. A stretch of dialogue can convince you after you go through it two or three times. But if it’s still convincing you after 80 times. And if at that point you’re just taking out the comma and putting it back in, then it’s good to go.”
Now that may sound insane to revise a stretch of dialogue 80 times, as even eight times through would be considered unproductive to some. But Barry will often get a running start for a day’s work by rehearsing previous lines. “If you’re feeling very flat and uninspired, you can always pick up a ream of dialogue and start reading it out and performing it and acting it out, working with the pen in hand as you go,” he says.
The current setting for these rehearsals is a shed behind an old police barracks in County Sligo. Barry described the move to The Guardian in 2011: “I was 36. This would be the first house I could call my own. Over the previous decade and a half I had lived at 17 addresses across nine cities of Ireland, Britain, the United States and Spain.” It’s impossible to know if it was the cause of his travel or the effect, but Barry is keenly interested in psychogeographical writing. In his second novel, Beatlebone, Barry appears to follow the triple thread of mind, memory and landscape, but then veers into an unexpected and mystical direction.
We are following John Lennon in 1978. He has run to the west coast of Ireland with a specific goal: to make it to the island of Dorinish, which he purchased at auction in 1967, and have a good scream. Things wobble right from the start, or, as John puts it when a shaggy dog he’s named Brian Wilson accompanies him in a duet, “This escapade is getting out of hand right off the fucking bat.” Absurd, yes. Out of hand, no. We are still solidly in the mind of an artist. John Lennon certainly achieved more by 1978 than any artist in any Künstlerroman, but readers will be more or less familiar with the view. Until one odd passage a third of the way into the story that extends a lot of what Barry began in his debut novel.
City of Bohane opens, “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river.” The line has faint echoes of the Airborne Toxic Event in DeLillo’s White Noise. The “taint off that river” makes it up over the chimney and settles in Bohane. Characters breathe in the foul air, but it remains primarily an external force that enfolds the gangs, sculpts them, keeps them in the warm palm of menace. The air in Beatlebone is completely different. Eddies of sentiment float in the landscape waiting for the characters, mainly John, to walk through them and act according to their mood. Here’s the passage I was alluding to above when Cornelius, John’s driver/fixer, but really Sancho Panza to his Quixote, explains the rules of the Irish countryside:
That patch of happiness could be floating around the field for the last ten years. Or for the last three hundred and fifty years. Out of love that was had there or a child that was playing or an old friend that was found again after a long time lost. Whatever it was, it caused a great happy feeling and it was left there in the field. You’re after walking into it. And for half a minute you’re lifted and soaring but then you’re out the far side again and back into your own poor stride and woes.
As we talk, Barry traces the genesis of this idea, that emotion can settle into a landscape, “that every place has its own mental atmosphere and its about five feet above our heads,” to a YouTube video of the philosopher John Moriarty talking with comic Tommy Tiernan. In that video, Moriarty says, “There’s sadness walking the land sometimes and you walk into it. It isn’t your sadness at all. It’s the sadness that’s in the land. You’re walking out there through the field and suddenly you’re sad, as if the sadness was out there in the field and you’ve walked into it.”
And what of the spirits of Ireland? Barry spent a year in Montreal while his wife, Olivia Smith, was teaching at McGill. He found the city to be bedrock solid. “It made me realize how neurotic, by contrast, the mental atmosphere of Ireland is—especially the Western seaboard, when you’re around that ocean, that big mesmeric black hissing fucking ocean. The place is rattled by it.”
A bit out there, to be sure, but when the protagonist’s sage advisor tells him that warm spots of happiness are floating in the fields, swirling with the winds like notes in Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” it’s the kind of surprise that wins over a reader. The free-floating spirits of Beatlebone are a development of Barry’s atmosphere, but most importantly, this moment is flat out fun.
Reading Beatlebone, you sense that no matter what else, Barry is having a blast. And when he gives a public reading, he’s a full-on performer. Barry is not afraid to do an accent or give a character a cartoonish voice. He scrunches up his features, gnarls his hands, almost crawling into the book when he reads the darker parts—and some of them get quite dark. He is easily the most entertaining reader I’ve seen live. Before we head back to his hotel, I ask him whether or not he thinks the words “fun” and “entertaining” are pejorative when describing literary fiction or whether he hears those words as praise.
“Completely so. I try to make it fun. There’s the biopic version of the writing life, where the man or woman is pacing back and forth and balling up a paper and throwing and I’m thinking, God I don’t want to read that stuff either. And it occurred to me belatedly that if I wasn’t having a good time at the desk, then the reader, god help them, wasn’t having a good time at the far end of the process. Literature was invented primarily to entertain. To get through the long fucking dark nights. It can instruct and offer so many deeper things as well, but for me, number one, it has to entertain and deliver near sensual pleasure in the prose. The sentences have to snap. So yeah, I’m completely all about trying to have a good time.
I was writing this long long sentence and it was going on and on and it was Cormac McCarthy and it was a train going across a Midland Plain and I remember stopping and going, Who the fuck is this guy? Because it wasn’t me. The prose was good, but it had nothing to do with me. Jesus. I’m glad I spotted that one and balled it up.
I don’t believe in this thing where a writer discovers his or her voice and then writes in that voice for 40 fucking years. I can’t imagine anything more tedious. I tend to have very particular voices for very particular projects.
Fun is critical to me.”
Capturing the mind of John Lennon is a tall task. To accomplish it, Barry relied on an ingenious principle: all artists are essentially the same as they were at 17; that’s when the subject matter, or ‘themes’ if you prefer, that will dictate the artist’s entire career begin to emerge. And that task, representing John Lennon as someone who sees himself as a 17 year old and then following those threads, is both more manageable and probably more accurate than depicting John Lennon after the Beatlemaniacal world had dressed him up, dressed him down, and spun him around a few times before he found solace at the Dakota. The John Lennon in Beatlebone says it plainly, “You never get past what happens to you when you’re seventeen.”
The natural last question for Barry would be to ask him what he was like at that age. He describes himself as, “An unappealing mixture of shy, awkward reticence and unearned cockiness. I was very snobbish about books, films, music, and I talked (A LOT) about my creative practices, though I didn’t actually have any. I typically wore motorcycle boots and ripped jeans with about 18 inches of back-combed air and to top it all (wait for it) a poncho. Quite the sight, on my bike, as I headed downtown towards the burning lights of Limerick city.
The influences that go in around that age are critical, though, and remain very important. I was into David Lynch movies, Velvet Underground records, Hernandez Brothers comics.”
And it seems to be true. You can see Kevin Barry’s ludic spirit and his arch-seriousness in that portrait of the artist, in a poncho.
Feature image: the Beara Peninsula, in West Cork.