Young Skins is the debut story collection by Colin Barrett, a writer who has in fact already featured on these pages; his story ‘The Clancy Kid’ appeared quite recently in the anthology Town & Country (ed. Kevin Barry), and while we weren’t entirely unforgiving about that volume (hey; when are we ever entirely unforgiving?), we’re definitely on record singing Barrett’s praises: his story, we said, had ‘vicious energy, characters that pulse with life, and a linguistic verve […] and Barrett nails the intense bleak aimlessness of small town life and youth’. This collection, then, follows happily in the same vein: a figurative sucker-punch of brutally raw emotion told an idiom that’s all Barrett’s own (though with the same zingy energy that we love in Barry’s work).
Set, in the main, in Barrett’s home county of Mayo, in the fictional town of Glanbeigh, the book’s seven stories give us glimpses into the despairing, loving lives of a clutch of hopeless cases; like Dubliners before it, it tracks its characters first through youth and beyond into a less frantic, more contemplative (if equally screwed-up) middle age. ‘The Clancy Kid’, we’ve seen; in it, a jilted love-sick chancer humours his semi-dangerous pal as he obsesses about a missing child. In ‘Bait’, the nonentity of a narrator drives his pool-shark cousin, Matteen, around town as Matteen tries to woo back his ex. In ‘The Moon’, Val, a bouncer, all-powerful in his small-town club, is ditched by his boss’s daughter, a university student. ‘Stand Your Skin’ is about Eamonn/Bat, a damaged man quietly in love with a girl who’ll never notice. ‘Calm With Horses’ is more novella than story, and it’s about a pair of school-friends who run the town’s drug-ring and who meet their match in a demented old man. ‘Diamonds’ is about a recovering (or not) alcoholic, and in ‘Kindly Forget My Existence’, two old band-mates meet for the funeral of a woman they both once loved.
What’s particularly exciting about Barrett’s work, though, isn’t his plotting (good as it is) or his settings (rock-solid and gritty) or even his idiolect (‘There was the wishbone snap of his nose breaking and the old man was clean out’.) or his dialect (‘Hector was awful itchy on the phone. Short and itchy,’ Dympna said.‘): his huge talent is in characterisation, in his ability to sketch a personality and a circumstance, tease the reader into making a judgment, and then wrench it all about ninety degrees. As we meet Val, the bouncer in ‘The Moon’, he dislodges a public hair from between his teeth and grins about his conquest of the boss’s young daughter before wielding his power over the half-cut supplicants in the club’s doorway; by the end of the story, though, the girl’s casually left him and he’s alone, lonely, and sending her gentle text messages: he’s the big man no longer, but rather than nodding at a rightful comeuppance, we felt awful for him. Barrett’s able to reposition the reader’s sympathies is a tricky manoeuvre, but he seems to pull it off near effortlessly. There’s not a weak story in the book, but the clear standout for us was the longer piece, ‘Calm With Horses’, a story not so much of small-time criminal enterprise and catastrophe, but of quiet love and loyalty. The bond between Arm, the strongman and narrator, and Dympna, the brains; between Arm and his one-time love, the mother of his child, and the tenderness Arm displays towards his autistic son; that between Dympna and his sisters, and between Dympna’s fearsome uncle Hector and his widowed girlfriend – it’s all woven between threads of violence, fear and threat, but it’s the tender humanity that makes the story sing. In just 72 pages, Barrett nails a poignant, complex story with a large and diverse cast and three major plots; it’s as memorable, moving and accomplished as most novels we could name.
Any Cop? Potentially the best collection we’ll read all year: a massive new talent, and stories that will make you yearn and nod and cry.