Beguiling Tales of County Mayo in Colin Barrett’s ‘Homesickness’

Lee Polevoi

 

Homesickness: Stories

By Colin Barrett

Grove Press

213 pages

 

In his superb debut story collection, Young Skins (2015), the young Irish writer Colin Barrett came out of the gate swinging, as the narrator of the opening story proclaims:

 

“My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk … I am young, and the young do not number many here, but it is fair to say we have the run of the place.”

 

No such bold proclamation occurs in Homesickness, Barrett’s long-awaited follow-up collection. Instead, the opening story, “A Shooting in Rathreedane,” introduces us right away to Sergeant Jackie Noonan of the Ballina Garda Station as she and her “gosling,” (a rookie law enforcement officer) respond to reports of a shooting:

 

“The squad car bounced and lurched as it passed over the rattling bars of a cattle grid. Next to the motorhome there were pieces of outdoor furniture and what looked like a little fire pit dug out of the ground, empty wine bottles planted in the moat of ash ringing the pit. Scattered elsewhere in the grass were bags of feed, a stripped-down, rusted-out engine block, scraps of tarp, scraps of lumber metal piping, plastic piping, bits and bits and bits.”

 

 

In these beguiling stories, we are for the most part steadfastly situated in County Mayo, Ireland.

 

As in Young Skins, this hugely talented writer immerses us in a remote part of the Emerald Isle, serving up (with great sympathy) characters who display his signature mix of humor and melancholy. Life is hard for County Mayo residents, eased only occasionally by flashes of love and warm feelings.

 

The prose is energetic throughout. Coffee is “black as a vinyl record.” The rookie cop in “A Shooting” has a “guileless shine coming off his forehead.” In the story, “The Ways,” a character is distinguished by “the scanty lichen of an unthriving moustache clinging to his lips.”

 

For Barrett, these are throw-away lines, found everywhere throughout Homesickness.

 

In “Anhedonia, Here We Come,” a budding poet named Bobby Tallis goes through a challenging day. He buys weed from a teenage girl, engages in anonymous sex with a stranger, and burns with excruciating anguish caused by the success of another younger poet. But what starts out as a day-in-the-life story ends with a possibly suicidal gesture and the faint hope of a new beginning.

 

A couple of stories in Homesickness lack the urgency we’ve come to expect from Barrett, more “slice-of-life” than “life-altering.” But even here, there isn’t a dull page in the book.

 

In the strongest story, “The Alps,” we are introduced to three brothers known as the Alps:

 

 

“They breathed coltishly through their noses and rolled their shoulders with a circumspect flourish whenever women crossed their paths. They billed themselves as tradesmen, though between them had never acquired a qualification in any particular trade. They painted, wired, plumbed, tiled, but where they excelled was in the displacement of the earth: digging holes, filling holes back in. Holes of any circumference and depth. Holes were their forte.”

 

What happens after the Alps enter the Swinford Gaels football club and encounter a sword-wielding young man is every bit as quirky and unpredictable as the author’s best work. Though the young man is clearly unhinged, he’s portrayed as hapless, well-meaning, and more than a little confused about the razor-sharp weapon in his hands. The story is funny, heartbreaking, and wholly absorbing, all at once.

 

The only disappointing aspect of Homesickness is simply that, for those of us who swooned over Colin Barrett’s first book, there’s less of that irrepressible joy of discovery the second time around. New readers will likely feel the same excitement generated by the stories in Young Skins. At the very least, they’ll see how a promising young writer has more than fulfilled the high expectations set by his earlier work.

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, a novel forthcoming in 2023.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--12019 (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Ptrabatonni (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Grove Press

 

 

 

 

 

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