In an effort to catch up with my review backlog, here are some brief notes on two fairly recent reads – both very highly recommended!
That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry (2020)
A vivid collection of eleven short stories, many of which feature loners, outsiders or those who find themselves on the fringes of mainstream society. As with most collections, some pieces will inevitably resonate more strongly than others, but there are five standout stories here, worthy of the entry price alone.
The collection starts strongly with The Coast of Leitrim (previously published in The New Yorker), in which Seamus, a lonely, sensitive, thirty-five-year-old man, falls for Katherine, a young Polish woman who works in a local café. This is a gentle, meditative story, shot through with a yearning for love and the fear of its loss in the future.
What kind of a maniac could fall for the likes of me, he wondered. The question was unanswerable and terrifying. When she lay in his arms after they had made love, his breath caught jaggedly in his throat and he felt as if he might choke. To experience a feeling as deep as this raised only the spectre of losing it. (pp. 19–20)
In Roma Kid, one of my favourite stories in the collection, a nine-year-old girl runs away from the asylum park where her family is being housed. When she sprains her ankle in the woods, the girl is taken in by another outsider – a single man living off-the-grid in a trailer, fending for himself in the wilds of the countrywide. As the weeks and months go by, a tender friendship develops between these two individuals, highlighting the kindness of human nature. This is a beautiful, compassionate story that doesn’t play out as the reader might fear.
There is a wonderful seam of dark humour to be found in some of the best stories here, pieces such as Toronto and the State of Grace, which combines striking social comedy with an element of poignancy. In Toronto, a jaded publican is forced to listen to the tales of an eccentric elderly woman and her extrovert son as they drink their way through the nine spirits on display in the bar. If truth be told, the owner is dying to lock up, but his attempts to curtail their drinking are repeatedly ignored!
Who’s-Dead McCarthy is another darkly comic gem in which the death-obsessed Con McCarthy likes nothing more than a bit of gossip about a passing in the family.
Con McCarthy was our connoisseur of death. He was its most knowing expert, its deftest elaborater. There was no death too insignificant for his delectation. A 96-year-old poor dear in Thormondgate with the lungs papery as moths’ wings and the maplines of the years cracking her lips as she whispered her feeble last in the night – Con would have word of it by the breakfast, and he would be up and down the street, his sad recital perfecting as he went. (pp. 109-110)
This is a brilliantly observed story with a very fitting end, another piece that demonstrates the author’s skills with character and dialogue.
Finally, the title story is also worthy of a mention, not least for its memorable central character – Hannah, a pregnant seventeen-year-old waiting in a Transit van while her thirty-two-year-old boyfriend robs the nearby petrol station. Like many individuals we see here, Hannah’s life is in flux, caught between uncertainty and a gradual dawning of reality. Once again, it’s an excellent story, beautifully conveyed in Barry’s uncomplicated yet poetic prose. Definitely recommended!
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)
I’m going to keep this relatively brief, mostly because the less you know about the second half of this book before reading it the better. It’s a man-on-the-run thriller of the highest order – taut, gripping and pacy with an existential dimension to boot.
The unnamed ‘rogue male’ of the novel’s title is a trained killer who decides to launch an assassination attempt on a highly dangerous dictator. (While the leader and his country remain anonymous, the time period and European setting clearly point towards Hitler.) Just as the narrator is about to pull the trigger on the dictator, he is captured by the leader’s security team, tortured and then dispatched down a cliff to make his death seem accidental. Somehow the job is bungled and our narrator manages to survive, escaping with his life in the most challenging of circumstances.
Drawing on his wits and extensive survival skills, the narrator makes it back to England where he finds himself being pursued by the dictator’s henchmen – clearly the matter of international borders poses little barrier to the tyrant’s intentions! Unfortunately, the narrator is unable to call on the British Government for protection as this would be tantamount to requesting an endorsement of his actions – something he knows the authorities will never do. (Interestingly, the true reasons behind our protagonist’s assassination attempt only become fully apparent as the story unfolds.) Moreover, the situation is further complicated when the man kills one of his pursuers to evade being captured, thereby involving the British police in the hunt.
The rest of the novel details the rogue male’s attempts to hide out in the midst of Dorset, a cat-and-mouse game between our protagonist and his main tracker, the brilliantly named Major Quive-Smith.
Household’s novel – which is rightly considered a classic of the genre – is presented as a first-person account, and the following passage, taken from the narrator’s initial escape, provides a good indication of the style.
I got out the map and checked my position. I was looking at a tributary which, after a course of thirty miles, ran into one of the main rivers of Europe. From this town, a provincial capital, the search for me would be directed, and to it the police, my would-be rescuers, presumably belonged. Nevertheless I had to go there. It was the centre of communications: road, river and railway. And since I could not walk I had to find some transport to carry me to the frontier. (pp. 16–17)
Other readers have compared this book to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, both of which are very valid comparisons. However, the writer I am most reminded of is Jean-Patrick Manchette – particularly his excellent man-on-the-run noir, Three to Kill (1976), which Max has written about here. Either way, Rogue Male is a terrific book, fully deserving of its status as a classic. It’s also quite philosophical at times – more so perhaps than I’ve been able to convey in these brief notes.
That Old Country Music is published by Canongate, Rogue Male by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance for a copy of the Barry.