Young Skins by Colin Barrett
My rating: 4/5 cats
My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.
stars cats, rounded up because it’s not the author’s fault that i have already read The Spinning Heart, which is the (unfairly high) standard i must now judge all irish post-celtic tiger story collections against.
these stories are all more than competent on their own, but i kept (again – unfairly) wanting them to bleed into each other, to connect, to have characters resurface in other stories in a significant way. and that’s one of those backhanded compliments – there were some characters i liked enough to want to see more of, so i was a little let down that i didn’t get as much closure and follow-up as i craved.
overall, a strong collection, filled with all that despair and helplessness i like so much in my books. stories of people trapped in their small lives, unable to escape the town of their birth, where all of their secrets are known, falling into destructive patterns of drinking, drugs, hopeless relationships, and crime to dampen their frustrations. barrett is a great writer – there is a strong sense of character and motivation, and you definitely understand the impulses driving the situations, even when you want to say “oh my god, don’t do THAT!!”
there are only seven stories in this collection, but one of them, Calm With Horses, is nearly a hundred pages long, so it’s not a pamphlet or anything. it’s actually the perfect length for a short story collection – i’m still at the stage in short story-appreciation where the idea of reading 300 pages of nothing but stories is a little daunting, so this one satisfies without overstaying its welcome.
The Clancy Kid
There is the comfort of routine in our routine but also the mystery of that routine’s persistence.
this is a good start to the collection- it sets up many of the themes that will recur throughout the book: hopeless yearning, feelings acknowledged too late, damaged individuals, heartbreaking childhood stories, desultory drinking, convenient sex, dubious romantic gestures, unexpected tenderness, and the gutpunch of We all have things we won’t let go of.
this is one of those stories that just… ends. and i’m sure that the last sentence is meant to have an emotional resonance, but it was a little too on the nose for me. i frequently have mixed feelings about the way short stories end, though, so don’t listen to me – i’m just a crank.
this is one of the ones that had characters whose adventures i wanted to read more of. this story echoes the sentiments of the last one, about the tenacity of the heart, of holding on to things well past their expiration date. it is told from the perspective of “harmless” teddy, following in the wake of lovelorn pool shark matteen as he pursues a woman with whom he had a brief relationship – a woman well out of his league.
They went out on a few dates thereafter, Matteen with his hand gripped about Sarah’s wrist, his eyes brimming with the terror-tinged delight of a man who has gotten exactly what he wants. Nobody knew what to say to them. Unanimously flummoxed were we, Mattheen’s pack, and envious. Matteen did not know what to say to Sarah either, and she, characteristically, said almost nothing. Soon enough, to our relief, it ended. Sarah euthanised it, proffered no explanation. Matteen, crushed, did not pursue one. Its demise was built into the thing’s inception, was the way he considered it at first; good things do not last, blah, blah.That was a year ago. And Matteen was fine for a bit, clinging to this stoic philosophical read, but the loss was hitting him constitutionally now.
i really enjoyed this story, up until the end. see what a crank i am? the end just felt off somehow, with its odd, almost supernatural tone. it’s not overtly supernatural, nothing like that, but there’s this witchy/succubus tone to it that left me a little befuddled. and that’s mostly why i wanted more follow-up – i wanted to know what came next. alas.
this one was probably my favorite. an utterly gorgeous bruised-but-stoic feel to it. it was sad and oddly romantic for a story containing the line ‘I just pulled a wee length of pussy out of my gob.’
another story about a convenient physical relationship that unexpectedly snags the heart and won’t let go, despite how unrealistic it would be to continue.
‘You like this place, don’t you Val? You like everything about it,’ said Martina.
‘That sounds like an accusation.’
‘Not at all. Someone has to stay put, hold down the fort.’
‘You’re not going anywhere that far.’
‘Galway’s not that far,’ said Martina, ‘but it might as well be the moon for people like you.’
oh, martina, you heartbreaker, you.
Stand Your Skin
another strong story, this. it did a really good job of highlighting that oppressive small-town atmosphere, where everyone has known everyone else since they were little kids, and no one is given an opportunity to hide from their past or become something unexpected; everything is socially preordained, the weight of your past is inescapable, and fuck you for trying. poor, poor bat, drinking by himself on his roof every night, with his holden caulfield impulses to protect the young girls from the inevitable, and his unfortunate visage:
Bat was never a good looking lad, even before Tansey cracked his face in half, he knows that. His features are and always have been round and nubby, irremediably homely, exuding all the definition of a bowl of mashed-up spuds. His eyes, at least, are distinctive, though not necessarily in a good way; they are thick-lashed, purplishly-pupiled and primed glintingly wide. They suggest urgent, unseemly appeal. You look constantly as if in want, his old dear chided him all up through childhood.
poor bat, whom everyone has written off – whose “accident” is the endpoint of his development, in the town lore and gossip. he will never be more than that anecdote.
there are a couple of stories in this collection that are single-character POV until the very end, when the perspective shifts to an unexpected character’s sights. this is one of them, and it’s an effective shift.
Calm With Horses
this one, you will recall, is the long one. and despite it being so long, i was enthusiastic enough with the characters and the story to wish for a book-length version of it. this one veers into grit lit territory, with its criminal element operating in the secluded backwoods, culminating in scenes of explosive, detailed violence. it also had a fantastic moment of black comedy, which meshed strikingly with a scene from boardwalk empire:
great story, great ending – this one makes me want to read a novel by barrett, because he definitely maintains his stride throughout the longer space, and it’s a very successful, satisfying piece of bleak-ass writing.
this one didn’t make me feel one way or another. it is the story from which the collection draws its name:
‘But you were there and I was there,’ she said. ‘In our young skins, though we didn’t know each other from Adam. Strange to think of it.’
the irony, of course, being that the two characters in this conversation still don’t know each other, except in the false closeness of carnal relations. it’s short and sad, but it didn’t resonate much with me. i can see it being a favorite for a different reader, but there are other stories i preferred.
Kindly Forget My Existence
this one i can see being staged as a play somewhere. the action all takes place in a bar, with some flashbacks to the characters’ shared past, and the more horrifying backstory of the bartender. this is another one that uses the last-scene POV-handoff, which leaves behind a good closing tone for the collection. it’s mournful and a little haunting, and the character is left not knowing what happened to the men with whom he passed an afternoon, the same way the reader is left not knowing the aftermath of any of the stories they have just read. a pleasantly sustained open-ended feeling.
i would enthusiastically read more by this guy.