Kevin Barry’s darkly glimmering third collection of short stories arrives prefaced with a quote from the film-maker Jane Campion, all about the romantic impulse. “It’s a heroic path and it generally ends dangerously,” she cautions. That isn’t always the case for the protagonists of these 11 tales. One character, himself a writer, steps back just in time. Another’s lot turns out to be happiness – the single outcome he professes himself unable to handle. But by and large, passion proves hazardous for the loners and oddballs who drift through Barry’s forceful landscape.
This is the west of Ireland, its wild emptiness teeming with lore and legend. As a publican says of his 10-streetlight town: “the winter bleeds us out here”. Come fairer weather, there’s the billowing whitethorn blossom to worry about, laden with doomy superstition. And what of the romance of the place? That gets short shrift, too. “The silly, silly moonlight,” sighs one man, rueing the calamity that comes from its enchantment.
He is Sergeant Brown, whose forebears all “drank themselves into the clay of the place”. He appears in Ox Mountain Death Song, a story whose steady momentum carries it to an unexpected climax as he pursues a felon named Canavan, himself one of long line of ferret-grinned good-for-nothings. As Brown notes of the Canavans: “they had for decades and centuries brought to the Ox elements that were by turn very complicated and very simple: occult nous and racy semen”.
And there it is, that canny laughter – vital, knockabout and unpredictable, it grounds in earthy reality the folksongs and fables that flit through the gloom here. Elsewhere, it adds a soulful complexity, enabling truths to disguise themselves as throwaway lines. Here’s the heroine of the title story, for instance, 17 years old and pregnant by her mother’s shiftless lover, gazing at herself in a car mirror: “She had a face on her like a scorched budgie. She detested herself.”
Written over the course of eight years, these stories aren’t quite of equal strength, but throughout, their language is exhilarating, its verve evoking the very best of Barry’s compatriots while further carving out a territory that’s all his own.
• That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry is published by Canongate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply