Some are valiant. A few are cunning. And more than a handful are utterly hopeless.
Varied as they are, the characters in Kevin Barry’s new story collection have this much in common: They fear that the one thing they desire — a moment of tranquility, a redemptive triumph — is destined to elude them.
In June, Barry, 44, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award — and the accompanying six-figure cash bonus — for his extraordinary first novel “City of Bohane,” published in the United States in 2012. Like the men and women in that book, a darkly playful saga of gangsters waging war in a futuristic Ireland (Barry’s home country), the characters in “Dark Lies the Island” are underdogs, outcasts and wild cards.
But if these tales are built around marginalized figures, there’s nothing uniform about Barry’s storytelling voice. He does humor. He does high drama. He even dabbles in horror (of a kind). And he can handle just about any other narrative form you might think of.
“Doctor Sot,” for instance, is many things at once: a conventionally told tale of a stock character, a moving portrait of addiction and madness, a paean to the rhythms of marriage and a tender depiction of forbidden desire.
The alcoholic physician of the story’s title is a Jack Sprat-esque figure — “Sot was stick and bone,” Barry writes, and his wife “Sally was hot and pink and fleshy” — who hallucinates when he looks at a mirror.
Sot’s visions aren’t his only distraction. He’s also become fixated on an amateur female philosopher who’s trying to “divine the true nature of time and memory.” As the story builds to an innocent encounter between Sot and the object of his crush, Sally, poignantly, is busy protecting her troubled husband from his own mind: “For fear that he would get back early, she would lay cloths now over all the mirrors in the house.”
At the other end of the spectrum, “Wifey Redux” is perfectly hilarious. It focuses on Jonathan, a high-strung Irish dad who fears that his teen daughter is attracting the wrong type: “Every hank of hair and hormones with the price of a lip ring in the borough of Dun Laoghaire has been panting after our Ellie.” While his best intentions fuel a flight of idiocy, Jonathan might be the book’s most relatable character: He’s a parent who just wants to sleep at night.
There are many other standouts. “Ernestine and Kit” — they’re among the only full-on villains in these pages — is about would-be kidnappers whose seeming normalcy makes them all the more terrifying. “Beer Trip to Llandudno” is an unexpectedly moving story about a group of heavy drinkers who’d prefer to be known as discerning saloon aficionados. And the title story, a catalog of bad parenting and technologically induced alienation, is a celebration of youthful resilience.
If “City of Bohane” earned Barry a modicum of global literary stardom (and padded his bank account in the process), this collection leaves no doubt that he’s earned all that’s come his way. Deeply humane and immensely funny, “Dark Lies the Island” is another testament to his many talents.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.