Set predominantly in the northwest of Ireland, That Old Country Music is Kevin Barry’s third collection of short stories. In ‘Old Stock’, a man travels to Donegal, where he inherits a cottage – and a warning – from his uncle Aldo: ‘I can’t explain it but the women go mental fucken gamey as soon as they get a waft of the place.’ This proves, entertainingly, to be the case, with a string of women – a solicitor, a hiker, a widow visiting to buy a car – throwing themselves on the narrator in succession. ‘Ox Mountain Death Song’ is a two-hander, with a Gardaí sergeant on the trail of a troublemaker in Sligo. The ‘death song’ plays in the sergeant’s ears, but he cannot quite divine for whom.
Barry’s stories generally describe quiet, thoughtful souls on the edge of epiphany or despair. The prose is relaxed but teeming with detail, thoughts piled one upon the other, and there are authorial flights of fancy that for the most part land well. In ‘Saint Catherine of the Fields’, sentences such as ‘The hills displayed with arrogance the riches of autumn and glowed, and I walked in a state of almost blissful sadness’ contribute to a vivid picture of the landscape. The story is about a lovelorn academic who researches Irish unaccompanied folk singing and follows a lead from a pub in Connemara to track down Jackson, a singer in Sligo. He finds the man, who is suffering from dementia but nonetheless performs a song: ‘all of human cruelty was contained within it but something, too, I thought, of what love means,’ the narrator remarks.
This is charming but it also illustrates one of the frustrations of That Old Country Music: every detail seems to hold overweening significance. The narrator adds, ‘the verses were charged with a kind of erotic mania that resonated all too sharply with my own contemporary funk.’ Likewise, a throwaway remark