They wait in ambush, these few simple words, tossed off casually and with just enough ambiguity that we think we understand: “Castles were good.”
We are day-tripping, along for a ride through Ireland’s County Sligo with Ernestine and Kit, a pair of 60-something women enjoying the summer weather. Naturally castles would be good.
But Kevin Barry, who rendered a pointillistic gangland last year in his first novel, “City of Bohane,” does love a sinister tale. In his stealthy and shimmering new story collection, “Dark Lies the Island,” a couple of tut-tutting women, clad in the harmless camouflage of maiden aunts, are as well versed in malevolence as any warring Bohane thug. Castles are good, it turns out, because their twisty corridors make it easy for small children to get lost, and for Ernestine and Kit to snatch them.
Darkness abounds in these 13 stories, though it takes its different forms: vileness, foreboding, ignorance, isolation, self-delusion, despair. Precisely one piece has what could be called an upbeat ending, and that only after a night of ungodly destruction. Like “City of Bohane,” some of the stories will send American readers scrambling for definitions of Irish terms, particularly the slang. Also like the novel, “Dark Lies the Island” is often playful, comic, even gently so.
“This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my face pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo’s bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear,” a Dubliner named Jonathan begins, in “Wifey Redux.” Creepy and increasingly manic, the story skewers gorgeously the culture of privilege that evolved during the Celtic Tiger years. It also gives us, in Jonathan, the first of several weepy men in the collection. Do not, of course, believe the bit about the happy marriage.
In “The Mainland Campaign,” a Tipperary teenager is new to London in what seems to be the 1980s: “All summer long he had been in rut heat and lonesome. He was in love with the girl in the Italian chipper. He was in love with Polly the restaurant manager. He was in love with the middle-aged lady who pulled pints at Presley’s and called him ‘Ducky.’ ” It is an amusing detail, sympathetic and human. And by some alchemy, it makes the boy’s business in the city — he is plotting, with the IRA, to bomb a tube station — even more soul chilling.
Carl O’Connor, the title character of “Doctor Sot,” is lonely, too, a pariah in his town. “Only the old and fatalistic still patronised the O’Connor practice,” and no wonder, what with the whiskey on his breath, the hallucinations that frighten him of mirrors, the humiliating “seepage” that stains his tweeds. At home waits his wife, “well used to his capers and disappearances. Often, Doctor Sot was gone for days at a time. Many was the ditch of the northwest he had woken up in.”
The title story, about a young woman alone in autumn at her family’s vacation home, where she is tempted to cut herself, is one of two in the collection — the other is about a callow writer trying to find himself in Berlin — that feel like padding. The last stories in the book, they aren’t of the same caliber as the rest of the work here.
Better to have finished with the pair of lowlife-criminal tales that come before them. Broke ex-con Patrick Mullaney, in “White Hitachi,” frets about his ability to make a life for himself and his much younger brother, Tee-J, who’s fresh out of juvenile detention. Patrick has a larger worry, too, and the way Barry lets us in on this — casually, calling no attention to it — takes the breath away: “An unspoken fear he had was that Tee-J would at some point kill.”
And it could be that Doctor Sot isn’t the only one who can’t bear to look in the mirror. In “The Girls and the Dogs,” a man with a restraining order against him is holed up in a trailer in the country, missing his daughter. He’s fled Cork because of some trouble with the brown crack he introduced to the city.
“I love May-Anne — my dotey pet, I always call her — but it makes me frightened just to think of her walking around in the world with the people that are out there,” he says. “You’d want a daughter breathing the same air as those animals?”