“I try to stick to the moment, to the now of the action. Tense is irrelevant. You can do it in the past tense. […] Backstory, exposition, anything that draws back or looks to perspectivize—these hold little interest to me at moment. Not to say that won’t change. Certainly in the short-story form, what attracted me was the way my favorite stories were like a lightning flash. Nothing existed before or after them, and in the instant of their illumination, they are all that exists.”from an interview with Colin Barrett in the Paris Review
The stories in Colin Barrett’s debut, Young Skins, are set in the fictional town of Glanbeigh in the west of Ireland. “My town is nowhere you have been,” says the hungover narrator of the opening story, “but you know it’s ilk.” And we do. This is post-recession, small town Ireland. The opportunities for escape are slim. For the young there are dead-end jobs, evenings of drink and pool. It’s a milieu which is instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever lived in a small town and despaired of escape.
‘Stand Your Skin’ is the fourth of the seven stories in the collection. Our focus is on Bat: employee at the local Maxol service station, victim of a random kick in the head years back that has left him with headaches, tinnitus and a slight but distinct droop of the mouth where his broken jaw has been reset. It’s also left him semi-reclusive, withdrawn, and drinking six beers on the roof of his Ma’s house each night. Into Bat’s limited orbit come Tain and Hegardy, both working summer jobs at the service station and heading back to school and college in the autumn.
So far, so simple. But in the 23 pages that follow, Barrett opens Bat up to us so completely that we are left both devastated by what has happened to him and frustrated by him and his ‘too big, too bluntly dimensioned’ body. And the way that Barrett achieves this is technically so interesting. We start in a close third-person narrative, right inside Bat’s head, but twice in the story this point of view ruptures and we find ourselves looking at Bat from the outside. It’s these two perspective-giving deviations from the story’s primary point of view that give a fuller and more poignant understanding of Bat.
In the first of these shifts — a story within a story — we hear what happened to Bat — the kick in the head — as it’s told to Tain by Bat’s cousin, Minion. Bat leaves the bar to go to the toilet just before Minion starts his story and returns to the bar at its end, at which point the narrative returns to his point of view. The second shift happens at the very end of the story when we enter the thoughts of Bat’s mother, the ‘old dear’:
“She has dreams of his bike leaving the road, his body a red rent along the macadam of some bleak country lane and the massive, settling silence afterwards. This is what a mother must do: pre-emptively conjure the worst-case scenarios in order to avert them. She never considered or foresaw that little shit Nubbin Tansey and his boot, and he happened. She cannot make that mistake again.
There is a part of her that hates her son, the enormous, fatiguing fragility of him.”
And there, seeing Bat from the outside, we can fully understand the frustration and love he induces in his mother.
Here’s Barrett’s description of ‘Stand Your Skin’ from an excellent interview in the Paris Review:
“It’s what I used to think of as a going-around-doing-nothing story. It’s a character piece focusing on the protagonist, Bat, detailing a routine few days in his existence. The defining event in his life—the random kicking he was on the end of in a chipper after a night out—happened years before, and the guy who assaulted him is long gone. It’s a fairly low-key story, in terms of events. Bat works in a petrol station, lives with his ma, is somewhat of a social recluse, goes to a birthday party in a pub, has a mild panic attack, and goes home. That’s it on the event level of the story. But technically, and structurally—and this is only apparent in retrospect, so I can’t consciously take credit for it—there’s a lot going on. There’s three perspective switches in the story, including one right at the end, a story within a story in the form of a direct monologue. There’s a recalled dream sequence, and an entire patterned sequence of imagery relating to confinement running through the text like vertebra.
There’s so much more that I could say about what makes this such a perfect story: the sure-footedness of every detail; the beauty and grittiness of the vernacular voice of the story; the wonder of Bat as a character. Everything is just right. Another element that makes it such a vivid story is the exactness and surprise of Barrett’s sentences. Here, for example, is a description of the depressing picnic area by the service station where Bat and his colleagues take their breaks:
“Scruffy clots of weeds have grown up and died in fistulas along the crumbling perimeter of the lot’s paving.”
How perfect is that fistulas? Or what about this description of Bat escaping the bar in panic when Minion asks Tain if she has heard the story of how he ‘wound up with that face’,
“As he slams open a cubicle door the possibility of throwing up seems fragilely close. He gropes the door shut behind him. A pitifully loud retch doubles him over; nothing follows but a gutty hock, a hot trickle of bile. Bat retches until it plops from his lips into the jacks’ waiting mouth.”
Gropes the door shut. Gutty hock, hot trickle. The poetry and the visceral, relentlessness of the language. Here’s Colin Barrett’s description of what a sentence should do:
“What I look for in sentences is a gnarl, a knuckliness. It’s textural, like a striae or a burr, some embedded trace within the sentence where the register changes or shifts. It’s hard to explain, of course, because it sounds like damage of a kind, but it has to be the right kind of damage, and it may be visual or mental as much as it is aural. Sound in prose is important, but it is not everything. I like a sentence that does exactly what it needs to, just not in the way one would have thought it needed to do it. I like a sentence that booby traps its cadence if required. I like sentences that go on, and ones that end before you think.”
I could quote from this Paris Review interview all day long, but I’ll leave you with just one more quote from Colin Barrett — about the big stuff taking care of itself. Then go ahead and read the rest of the interview with him. I promise you’ll be desperate to read Young Skins by the time you’re done.
“Gordon Lish talks about “consecution,” about pulling the language and subject matter out of the previous sentence. Each sentence, even down to its syllabic and acoustical shape, embryonically contains the next. I don’t do it at that microscopic level, but I like to work incrementally with plot, extruding what is, I believe, incipient. Just accruing one small detail after another. The big stuff takes care of itself. What seems like audacious structural or narratorial swerves often aren’t, at the time of construction—they’re just the next step you need to take.”
If you need more persuading, there’s a story by Colin Barrett in the New Yorker here. I haven’t read it yet — for January I’m reading a short story by a different author each day — but I’m looking forward to it.