“I am young,” one of Colin Barrett’s narrators tells us, “and the young do not number many here, but it is fair to say we have the run of the place.”
The place is the fictional Irish town of Glanbeigh, the setting for all the stories in Barrett’s decorated debut, “Young Skins.” The first page firmly establishes the scene, with its “gnarled jawbone” of coastline and “a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits.”
Published in Ireland in 2013, “Young Skins” arrives here with three prestigious honors from overseas: the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. It lives up to its laurels.
Barrett’s style, both exact and poetic, is reminiscent of any number of Irish writers who keep language on a string. His stories are crowded with young men and women making a racket while going nowhere.
Barrett, 32, grew up in Knockmore, a town in western Ireland that resembles the world of “Young Skins.”
One sign of his striking maturity as a writer is that his characters stay in character. The epiphanies they would be likely to blurt out are less of the refined literary type than of the “Oh right, I got that tattoo last night” type. So Barrett keeps their dialogue tight and leaves any attempts at lyricism to himself, when he describes their surroundings or adopts their perspectives.
The characters communicate with one another in flirty fragments and casual obscenities. Barrett extracts self-knowledge from them: “I had never sought a status beyond that of sidekick or flunky,” one character thinks, “and in this way had achieved subtle indispensability.”
Some of Barrett’s men are bouncers, and others would have done well to channel their gifts into the profession. But what separates his tough characters from those written by others is how carefully he applies the details that soften their edges.
One man named Tug (called Manchild when he’s out of earshot) is “big and he is unpredictable, prone to fits of rage and temper tantrums.” He is also genuinely preoccupied with the whereabouts of a boy who disappeared and made the national news and is still missing after three months.
The most vivid and lasting impression is left by Arm, short for Douglas Armstrong, the central character in “Calm With Horses,” which anchors the collection. Arm is the friend and the significant muscle of a marijuana dealer named Dympna, who gets his product from two older uncles who live on a forbidding farm with an “in-house armory.”
An ex-boxer now putting his strength to less sporting ends, Arm is also the father of Jack, an emotionally volatile, nonverbal 5-year-old. (“The doctors hadn’t a notion about Jack, or his prospects, and were taking the long route in admitting as much.”)
Arm begins to accompany Jack on his visits to a farm, where he interacts with horses as a form of therapy. A clumsier writer might have made Arm an unconvincing juxtaposition of outward violence and inner sentimentality. Barrett makes him seamless and convincing: brutish but alive.
The people in “Young Skins” are in the early stages of blinkered small-town lives, but Barrett strategically pans out on rare occasion to show in subtle ways the larger forces pressing on them; namely, the tanked Irish economy.
A cassette-tape slot in a car’s dashboard is “jammed with calcified gobs of blue tack, cigarette butt-ends and pre-euro-era Irish coins.” Later, a character is disappointed to find Irish pounds during a robbery attempt. “This is no good,” he says. “This money’s gone. It’s done.”
Young Skins: Stories, by Colin Barrett (211 pages; Black Cat; $15)