Hiking solo across a country whose language he cannot speak, sleeping on beaches and eating hardly at all, the narrator of "Extremadura (Until Night Falls)," one of Kevin Barry's lyrical short stories, has renounced the comforts of home, companionship and modernity. "Sometimes," he says, "I feel as if my engines are powered on nothing at all but the light of the pale stars that will emerge above us now."
The characters in "That Old Country Music," the Irish writer's third story collection, include a folk singer in his 10th decade, a courageous child in her first, some 30-something nomads and a couple of middle-aged creative types who roughly resemble the 51-year-old author. As in "Extremadura," each protagonist harbors a soul-deep ache, a yearning for things not quite attainable.
Best known for his outstanding comic novels about John Lennon ("Beatlebone") and an Irish ex-con looking for his estranged daughter ("Night Boat to Tangier"), Barry skillfully blends humor and pathos.
"Ox Mountain Death Song" — one of several stories set in western Ireland — centers on a humorous yet dramatic showdown. Sgt. Tom Brown's father "drank himself into the clay of the place," but his weakness is for sweets. An outwardly absurd figure — he patrols while downing "honey from a squeezable tub" — the sergeant's clashing impulses, revealed with expert subtlety, fuel his stunning confrontation with a charismatic felon.
Barry works in dual emotional registers throughout the book. "Saint Catherine of the Fields" is a wry portrait of a lovelorn musicologist who rediscovers a forgotten ballad about people "as deranged by matters of the heart and loins as I was now."
"Who's-Dead McCarthy" features a morbid busybody whose fondness for tales of bizarre death belies his existential wisdom: Most of us "turn our minds from that which is inevitable — Con McCarthy could not turn from it."
Barry's most moving story follows a 9-year-old refugee as she makes an unlikely friend and forges a new life in the Irish countryside. "Roma Kid" is full of elegant sentences that summon "the sound of the high wood by night in the wind" and the blooming of wild plants, which "was an itch on the air and caused giddiness in them both."
His final story, "Roethke in the Bughouse," is a fictionalized telling of a celebrated American poet's 1960 stay in an Irish psychiatric hospital. Penning "jivey notes" in a "spidery scrawl," Barry's Theodore Roethke is agitated, voluble, undaunted. "Shall I lead you through the caverns of this fat old skull then?" he asks. "Caverns full of black hissing water through which sometimes still I rise up to myself."
Burrowing into the poet's psyche, Barry vividly conjures his pain and pride. It's an aptly poetic coda to an inspired, evocative book.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
That Old Country Music
By: Kevin Barry.
Publisher: Doubleday, 208 pages, $23.95.
Event: In conversation with C.J. Hauser, 6 p.m. Jan. 13, livestreamed on Magers & Quinn Facebook page and YouTube channel.