Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kevin Barry, “Fjord of Killary”

Kevin Barry’s “Fjord of Killary” (TNY, Feb. 1, 2010) is a fast-paced tale about a poet who buys an old hotel in a remote corner of western Ireland. Locals gather to drink at the hotel bar, which is tended by the narrator in the evenings, but the customers constantly dismiss him and his urbane ways. The hotel is staffed by promiscuous and scowling Belarusians.

The narrator is evidently in a midlife crisis: he hasn’t published anything in five years and he’s always trying to turn into a romantic version of himself (“I’d had a deranged notion that this would establish me as a kind of charming-innkeeper figure”). Buying the old hotel was part of his crisis.

The short story focuses on one night in which a storm ravages the town and the hotel floods. Led by the narrator, the people at the bar take refuge in a function room upstairs. As the night progresses, the narrator is swooped up again by a lyrical urge and he ends by saying that the “gloom of youth had at last lifted.” He grew up.

The highlight of the story is the dialogue, which is funny and brisk when left to the locals. But there are plenty of things to improve. I found myself squinting at an outrageous simile in the very first paragraph: the rain “came down like handfuls of nails flung hard and fast by a seriously riled sky god.” I may have swallowed it without the “seriously riled.” Maybe. (A later reference to paganism may justify the simile thematically, but stylistically it made me grit my teeth.)

Here’s another example of something to improve. After a nice and jagged conversation among the customers about how long it took to get from A to B, iterated about ten times, the narrator slides this in: “The primary interest of these people’s lives, it often seemed, was how far one place was from another, and how long it might take to complete the journey, given the state of the roads.” We had already seen this at work (and we do repeatedly throughout the story); why bother describing it?

The biggest flaw, though, was that the story seemed to ramble and stuff itself with unnecessary descriptions. In fact, I would’ve suggested beginning the story at the end of the second page, when the story says, “Bill Knott was now reckoning the distance to Derry if you were to go via Enniskillen.” Sure, spice up the opening to make it stronger. Add a dash of the good dialogues from the previous pages. But the story could be told in its entirety from that point on, and we wouldn’t miss a thing. That’s a good sign that the author and editors would’ve done well to befriend the delete button. A leaner, more powerful story would emerge.

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