Young Skins by Colin Barrett
The Stinging Fly, 2014
Is this the motley underbelly of Ireland? The fated and the maimed? The directionless? Colin Barrett certainly seems to be constructing such a vision of contemporary small-town Ireland in his award-winning Young Skins. I could approach this collection from several directions, but I’ve decided to have a look at it through the character of Arm, in my opinion Barrett’s most brutal yet sympathetic character.
Arm, the protagonist of “Calm with Horses,” is a hit-man for a drug dealer. He knows the secret of being a good enforcer: “You have to keep wanting to hurt people.” Arm kills because it’s his job and he does it well. But he’s also trying his best to be a loving father to the apparently autistic little boy Jack, the youngest in Barrett’s stable of violent men that play important roles in all of these stories. A nameless blonde with a black tooth in the story ‘Diamonds’ gives us a profile of Barrett’s men in her description of a user named The Spider:
…he was a coward and selfish and probably a sociopath; a spiteful, petty bully congenitally incapable of empathy for others, though he was a charmer of course.
Barrett’s best variation on this character type is Nubbin Tansey, “a shortarse [with the] physique of a jockey on steroids”. As he’s showing off his martial arts abilities in a pub, he promises to ‘take the head off’ the next person who walks through the door. It doesn’t matter who, and this person’s life will be ruined because of one man’s drunken, random anger but also because of the crowd who do nothing to prevent it. Most of the older characters on the periphery in these stories are either drug dealers or “old dears,” elderly women who are more nostalgic holdovers than role models. Yet there is the odd mentor-type character—two in fact. Both appear in the story “Diamonds”: Mellick, a recovering alcoholic-cum-inspirational speaker, and the Sentimental Authoritarian, a former coach who gives the main character a job when he comes back to town. Even with their good intentions, neither of these positive role models proves to be effectual.
In the first story of the collection a narrator says the young have the run of this place. And they do. They crowd the pubs, and when they’re too young to do this, they create their own domain in the woods; and when they’re too young to do this, they play king and demand gifts in exchange for crossing a dilapidated bridge. It’s not quite Children of the Corn, but it leans in this direction.
This vision of anarchy, in my opinion, is the most powerful aspect of Barrett’s collection; the prose style is not. It feels lily-gilt in not just a few places: belaboured, as if in his attempt to give the reader innovative language, Barrett rather ends up dawdling on images too long and crafting head-scratcher mouthful constructions like “thick-lashed, purplishly-pupiled, and primed glintingly wide” (only part of the description of Bat’s eyes in “Stand Your Skin”). Overwrought descriptions like these sap the power from the scene and cause the reader to Google pupils to confirm that they really are black as he thought. Are purple pupils a drug reference? I don’t know. It’s not the colour here that jars; it’s the constructedness. The most powerful writing here is not the overcrowded passages but the sparingly worded, natural ones that strike a simple—yet resonant—chord, like this one in “The Clancy Kid” from one of Barrett’s sidekick narrators:
Leave it be, Tug, I want to say, but I say nothing. So much of friendship is merely that: the saying of nothing in place of something.
In my opinion this ungilt lily packs more punch than the more intricately worded sentences in these stories. You may (or surely) have another opinion—and that’s what makes words on paper art. In terms of art, it’s important for me as a reader to try to understand what the author is doing when he writes passages like the following from “Kindly Forget My Existence”:
The barman took a dainty drag of his cigarette—he was smoking with such hallucinatory slowness that Eli was beset by the misimpression his cigarette had not diminished at all—and held the smouldering cylinder towards Eli.
This sentence bothers me, but other readers may love it. I think it’s unnecessarily convoluted. It’s an example of those moments in Barrett’s prose when I feel him over-embellishing an image, giving it too much importance in the scene; but decorating these violent stories with preciously crafted prose may just be what’s really going on here. Language as civiliser in the midst of “uncivilised fucking animals”?
Trying to get back to civilisation is a theme in these stories: characters attending university in other towns, men trying to get back to their women and their children. Arm is giving it a shot, but his good intentions and business-like approach to hurting people fail to save him in the end from the arbitrary shotgun-like spray of violence around him. Random violence—“an undirected venting of pressure”—seethes at the core of these seven stories. A bit of a shock at first (but maybe I’m a victim of a sheltered life?), the anger becomes more and more expected. And it must be said: it’s not only the men. One of the most violent—and superbly written—passages is Sarah and Jenny’s rape of Teddy, Matteen’s amiable sidekick in “Bait”:
They blindsided me, crashed into me from behind. I was on my face on the ground, in the dirt, and there was a measured vicious hailing of my ribs from either side. I got on my back and something shattered across my forehead, a wetness sliding all over my face, the precise fire of vodka seeping into however many cuts now decorated my skin. Then there was a weight on my chest and something squeezing straight down on my throat . . . . Consecutive wrenches at my thighs brought my pants down and the horn was out, sacked like a frowsy vagrant into the open. . . . Oh Teddy. . . . We are going to suck the eyeballs right out of your face. (ed: printed formatting not retained on these last few lines ).
The relationship between men and women here is nothing less than frightening, and Teddy’s response to being raped is something I won’t steal from you. It’s one full of pathos worth the read. I have to say, despite my criticisms, I’ve written in the margins of some story endings “WORTH IT”.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning the mothers. The one example of unconditional love in Barrett’s fictional Glanbeigh is the mothers’ love for their sons—a hit-man, a loser, a cripple, a fraud—no matter what; even if loving their sons means becoming victims of the violence themselves. These are the “old dears” who worry and suffer nightmares for their children. They’re helpless. Tragic.
Young Skins describes the shocking reality of youth without guidance, a community ruined by drugs and drink but most of all by the desire to keep hurting people. Barrett’s young skins are ultimately memorable, volatile and tragic creations.