31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 9: “The Clancy Kid” by Colin Barrett

May 9, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Young Skins

Young_Skins_Colin_BarrettMany reviews of Young Skins, the debut collection from Irish writer Colin Barrett, quote the book’s opening line, from “The Clancy Kid.” And well they should, because it’s a great line. “My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.” The rhythm and cadences of the prose draw the reader in, as does the commingled sense of anonymity and familiarity. You’ve never been to this town, but you’ve visited thousands like it. It’s nothing special. Except when filtered through the prism of Barrett’s language.

“‘Voice’ writing is all there is, to my mind,” Barrett told The New Yorker. “Taking ‘standardized’ language and deforming it, beautifully. Certainly, with fiction, you have to be trying to do that at some level – your story or novel can be about anything, but one of its subjects has to be the operations and consequences of its own language, or it’s nothing.”

The lilt of Barrett’s particular voice can be found right from the opening words of “The Clancy Kid,” and pouring forth into the descriptions of “the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes” with their “Zen bovines” contemplating “the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.” Another frequently quoted image describes “the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories.”

This is high-wire writing, without a net. The slightest imbalance could send the entire thing crashing to the ground, but the author’s innate sense of musicality and his feel for dialect keep the prose from tumbling. As an introduction, the first paragraph of the first story in this debut collection is a hell of an opening salvo.

Published in Ireland in 2013, Young Skins had already won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature by the time Black Cat brought out the North American edition earlier this year. The great Irish writer Kevin Barry was an early enthusiast of Barrett’s writing; other writers who have been effusive about the work include Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Joseph O’Connor, and Colum McCann. It’s not difficult to see what other writers admire in Barrett: his assured prose elevates his core subject – the struggles of young, working-class men in the fictional town of Glanbeigh – into something that feels fresh and new.

“The Clancy Kid” is a strong distillation of Barrett’s strengths as a writer. The story focuses on two friends, twenty-five-year-old Jimmy and Tug, one year his junior. Jimmy is a drinker who has had a long-term relationship with a woman in town named Marlene. “[I]f we’ve never quite been on we’ve never quite been off, either,” Jimmy says, “even after Mark Cuculann got her pregnant last year.”

For his part, Tug doesn’t drink, “which is a good thing,” according to Jimmy. Tug, you see, is a bit unhinged:

Tug is odd, for he was bred in a family warped by grief, and was himself a manner of ghosteen; Tug’s real name is Brendan, but he was the second Cuniffe boy named Brendan. The mother had a firstborn a couple of years before Tug, but that sliver of a child died at thirteen months old. And then came Tug. He was four when they first took him out to Glanbeigh cemetery, to lay flowers on a lonely blue slab with his own name etched upon it in fissured gilt.

It’s the last detail, dropped in almost as an afterthought, that sets a reader back on her heels. There is such pervading sadness in the image of a four-year-old boy laying flowers on a grave with his own name etched into it – sadness for the loss of a brother he never knew, and sadness for being forced into a confrontation with his own mortality far earlier than should have been necessary. It is little wonder that Tug grew up “odd” (the nickname people use for him behind his back is “Manchild”), or that as an adult, he takes pills “to keep himself on an even keel.”

Tug is obsessed with a local child who has gone missing – the Clancy kid of the story’s title. Tug has various wild and unsupported theories as to what befell the ten-year-old, but his fascination bespeaks a tenderness that is otherwise absent from his character. That the missing child echoes Tug’s dead brother is clear, as is what the Clancy kid represents: innocence, in particular, lost innocence.

This notion is also explicitly connected to Marlene, whom Jimmy conjures at the end of the story. Marlene is associated in Jimmy’s mind with a newspaper picture of the Clancy kid Tug has clipped and tacked to the wall of his room; if the Clancy kid represents for Tug a kind of prelapsarian state of existence, so Marlene does for Jimmy. Marlene betrays Jimmy by rejecting him and aligning herself with a man whose surname – Cuculann – chimes with that of the hero Cú Chulainn of Irish mythology; Jimmy reacts by goading Tug to vandalize Cuculann’s car, following which he scrawls the words “Marry Me” on the window in Marlene’s lipstick.

The conflict between innocence and a fallen or degraded world also manifests at the story’s end in an encounter between Jimmy, Tug, and a young boy who claims he is a king guarding a bridge across the town river (more mythological undertones). After the boy smites Tug with a makeshift spear, Tug pretends to be dead, which sets the boy to weeping. Tug “revives” himself and addresses the boy: “Don’t be teary now, wee man … I was dead but I’m raised again.”

On one level, this is literally true: Brendan Cuniffe has died and his younger brother has been forced to lay flowers at his grave. In a sense, Tug’s notion of having been raised from the dead is absolutely accurate. Barrett’s story, however, will not allow either Tug or Jimmy succor from reality for long. Marlene has discovered happiness with the mock-heroic father of her child, and the Clancy kid remains missing. That’s the way life goes in the town of Glanbeigh. It is no accident that when Jimmy looks back after crossing the bridge over the river, the boy with the spear has vanished.