The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry - review by Paddy Crewe

Paddy Crewe

No Country for Married Men

The Heart in Winter


Canongate 224pp £16.99

The Heart in Winter, Kevin Barry’s first novel in five years, opens in Butte, Montana. It is the last decade of the 19th century and Butte, having been established as a mining camp in 1864, is now on the cusp of becoming one of the largest industrial cities in the American West. As with most boom towns of the period, its growth has been characterised by a furious influx of hopeful prospectors from across the globe, all of whom have little choice but to collide and create – in a simmering, spitting brew of class and culture – an entirely new strain of society.

Perhaps the best-known artistic endeavour to capture this radical process is David Milch’s Deadwood, the HBO series that ran between 2004 and 2006, garnered eight Emmys and one Golden Globe, and was controversially axed after its third series. Set in South Dakota fifteen years prior to the date when Barry’s novel opens, Deadwood was Milch’s attempt to sift through the layers of chaos that attend the formation of a new territory, and to examine who will come out on top and who will be left behind.

The Heart of Winter follows one of those who have been left behind. Enter Tom Rourke, poet, dope addict and ballad-maker, dressed in ‘suave array and manic tatters’. Originally from Berehaven, a small port town in County Cork, Rourke is one of ‘ten thousand Hibernian’ who have made the journey across the Atlantic and have ‘had the place fucking destroyed’. He is, from the very outset, on the brink of succumbing to some half-feared, half-longed-for oblivion. Up the ‘slow hill of Wyoming Street’ he walks ‘as calamity’; something – the general dereliction of his life, it seems – has moved him to ‘once more’ reject the existence of God. At the sound of a train whistling as it enters the yards of the Union Pacific, he is left ‘twitching like a motherfucker’. 

If in the past Barry has, by his own admission, wrestled with what he calls the ‘lyric impulse’ (a proclivity to over–embroider), then in The Heart in Winter he strikes a very fine balance. There are instances of linguistic flair, sometimes boldly, feverishly delivered, but the story is steered by a drier, more laconic voice than some of his other fiction, as if the tale were being boozily recounted from behind a screen of drifting saloon smoke. Barry occasionally risks the inclusion of such colloquialisms as ‘dude’ (its use in slang shifting over time), ‘motherfucker’, ‘kinda’, ‘weird’, ‘bullshit’ – all of which threaten to wrench the reader out of the period. I’m no scholar of whether these words would have been in use or not, but it is difficult to read a line like ‘And the dude Ding Dong spoke with this like weird authority’ without a stoned high-schooler coming to mind. But then there arrive certain passages suffused with the kind of gentle, folksy wisdom that summons the moustachioed figure of The Stranger from the Coen brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski: ‘Yes and one day you too might ride through such a place thinking you got it bad but the place will let you know quick enough there were others that rode through here before and they had it plenty worse.’ 

It is hinted that Rourke is something of a clairvoyant, and as he moves through the hustle and bustle of Butte’s streets, he intuits ‘the approach of a dangerous fate’. Moments later, he is propping up a bar and doing what he does best to fund his various vices: matchmaking. Rourke writes ‘letters for the lonesome’, neat, lyrical pieces in exchange for a small fee. These give the great swathes of misfits – ‘the halt and the lame, the mute and the hare-lipped, the wall-eyed men who heard voices in the night’ – a chance at love. As for himself, Rourke is in the white-knuckle throes of abstinence: he is, against all his wilder instincts, denying himself ‘the bodily release of the cribs’ and ignoring with ‘a disdain almost priestly the flashing thighs and moaning lips of the commerce’. 

Rourke’s attempt at self-improvement is, predictably, fleeting. What happens next happens quickly (it has to: The Heart in Winter is a slim volume at just over two hundred pages). Rourke works on an ad hoc basis for the Lonegan Crane photographic studio. When he is still very much at his nadir (owing more than seventy-five dollars to his landlady, Mama Horvat), there arrives Captain Anthony Harrington of the Anaconda mining company. He and his new bride, Polly Gillespie, are to have their picture taken. When the captain tries to remove her coat, Rourke observes her as she ‘sulk[s] his hands away’. His predatory instincts bristle and he detects some disconnect between the two, and sees that there might be room for him to try out his own, more salacious brand of romancing. Due to Harrington’s many work commitments at the mine, opportunities are plenty. Polly’s resistance is short-lived. When compared to the excessive piety of the self-flagellating Harrington (their courtship was played out by letter, so Polly was unaware of the poisonous slant of his religious zeal), Rourke’s roguish charm is irresistible, and after a brief but potent series of meetings, the logical next step is to elope. How? The plan, devised by Rourke, is typically ill-conceived: a fire is started, money is stolen and a horse is pointed west.

And so ensues a rollicking, at times hallucinatory, gallop across the wilds of America. The passage of the runaways draws in a cast of grotesques: Ding Dong the reclusive ‘dude’; a pair of mushroom-eating Métis; a murderous, tequila–swigging reverend; a pack of Cornish gunmen (including seven-foot-tall Jago Marrak) who, at the behest of the spurned Captain Anthony, are in hot pursuit. If you still long for a yarn in the truest sense of the word, then step through the shadows and into the soft, flickering glow of the campfire and have Kevin Barry tell you his tale.

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