To fully appreciate a story by Canadian-Irish writer Colin Barrett, it is necessary to luxuriate in the language. It is therefore not unreasonable to quote in their entirety the opening two paragraphs from his caustically funny barroom yarn “The Alps”:
A Hitachi Hiace with piebald panelling, singing suspension, and a reg from the last millennium rolled into the car park of the Swinford Gaels football club late on a Friday evening. The Hiace belonged to Rory Hughes, the eldest of the three brothers known as the Alps, and the Alps travelled everywhere together in it. The brothers stepped out and, with a decisive slam of the van’s side door, moved off across the moonscape of the car park in order of their conceptions, Rory on point, the middle brother Eustace close behind, and the youngest, Bimbo, in dawdling tow.
The Alps, weary after a week of work, did not speak. They listened to the chunked slippage of the gravel under their workboots. On the floodlit pitch a pheasant groomed itself beneath the sagging diagonals of the goalmouth netting. The night air was close and cloudless, sultry with the stink of silage coming off the surrounding fields.
The first thing to notice here is the precision of the descriptive passages. Too many writers enamoured with adjectives will toss them around profligately, paying no heed to the appropriateness or euphony of the words they choose. Such writers should have access to their thesaurus restricted by federal edict. Barrett is the other kind of writer: one so highly attuned to the rhythms and meanings of words that it is almost possible to score the language on the page the way one might a piece of music.
His sense of alliteration in the passage above is only the most obvious aspect of his style. Not only is the make of car alliterative, but its features – the “piebald panelling” and “singing suspension” – complement the description of the night air that is “sultry with the stink of silage” from the “surrounding fields.” Not only are the repeated sibilants highly musical, the unexpectedness of the modifier “sultry” is evocative and synesthetic without appearing forced or artificial. The name of the football team immediately situates the scene in terms of nationality, and the description of the car park’s “moonscape” paints a more granular picture that is at once cinematic and literary.
But there are other, more subtle elements at work here, too – narrative details that won’t become significant until later in the story. The fact that Rory appears to march “on point” implies a military association that will come to bear once the brothers get inside and the central conflict is revealed. And the specificity of the pheasant grooming itself in the pitch’s “goalmouth” (brilliant compound word) anticipates an argument between patrons of the clubhouse about the difference between a pheasant and a peacock.
It is perhaps worthwhile to note that it takes Barrett three pages just to get his trio of siblings across the parking lot and into the bar itself, where the bulk of the story will unfold. The opening pages are devoted to descriptions such as the one above and a dialogue between the brothers about a drone that Bimbo spies above an adjacent field. The dialogue is likewise cast in language that sings with the rhythms of the local dialect:
“See,” said Bimbo, focusing his attention on the point. As if by telepathy the older two duly clocked the light.
“What in the Christ is that when it’s at home?” said Rory.
“It’s a drone,” said Bimbo. “Them acres over there belong to Marcus Landry, right? I heard he was sourcing the highest-spec drones he could get his hands on to keep track of his herds. He’s rakes of livestock and animals and they do be regularly going missing on him,” Bimbo said. “The surmise is some intrepid bollocks is poaching them.”
“That would be the surmise, all right,” said Rory.
“Drones,” said Eustace, “would you be well?”
“Landry is a man of means,” said Rory. “Men of means are rarely right in the head.”
In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor comments on the importance of the judicious use of local dialect to create characters that stand as individuals rather than stereotypes. “An idiom characterizes a society,” O’Connor writes, “and when you ignore the idiom you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character.” Barrett’s attention to idiom is profound in comments like “[h]e’s rakes of livestock and animals” and the question “would you be well?” meaning “Is he insane?”
They are also the rhythms of the working class, and Barrett is solid in his presentation of this as well. The Alps, we are told, “never acquired a qualification in any particular trade”; they spend their working lives “digging holes, filling holes back in. Holes of any circumference and depth. Holes were their forte.” They also suffer the travails of the lower classes, eating fast food without any nutritional value and downing “vats of Guinness every weekend.” Their lifestyle helps ensure their genetic heritage, which consists of poor health and restricted life expectancy. “The Alp family tree,” we are told, “was a stump mutilated by cancer and coronaries.”
None of this, it should be noted, has anything to do with the central incident in the story, which involves an encounter between the Alps, the other patrons of the clubhouse and its bartender, and an interloper carrying a replica Japanese kanata sword “for protection.” The stranger, whose name is Derek, claims he needs protection from “two or three” of his nine brothers who wish to do him harm. Sure enough, the brothers track him down at the bar, where they set upon him for the crime of stabbing to death their mother’s Sphynx cat, a “[h]igh pedigree, very delicate, very expensive” feline that is alternately referred to as “a shaved ballbag with four legs stuck on it.”
Most apparent here is Barrett’s ribald sense of humour. What is less apparent is the extent to which the action in the story is secondary to the style; vast swaths of the narrative are given over to banter meant to draw the individuals inside the Swinford Gaels’ clubhouse in stark relief; each character becomes a unique and pointedly differentiated individual before any of the story’s central action unfolds.
Of course there is a conflict involving the kanata sword and a golf club wielded by one of Derek’s vengeful brothers, but Barrett operates in the story much like Quentin Tarantino in his scripts: he proves much more interested in what happens before and after the violence than in the violence itself.
Which is one reason it’s not terribly useful to go into too many specifics about the various characters inside the bar, or whether the fowl on the pitch is a pheasant or a peacock, or how the conflict between the two sets of brothers works itself out. “The Alps” thrives on the page in its carefully calibrated attention to language and technique; the style is in service of a ripping good yarn, but it is also entirely inseparable from the content. In this, Barrett also exemplifies another of O’Connor’s prescriptions for short fiction: “When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.”