That Old Country Music,” the title of Kevin Barry’s new book of short stories, refers not to American country and western music but to “old-style” unaccompanied Irish folk singing. At the center of the book is a story about a heartbroken middle-aged song collector from Dublin who goes in search of a folk singer named Timothy Jackson, reputed to know songs “from deep in the 19th century. . . . Songs that nobody else had now.” He finds the 96-year-old Jackson in a nursing home, and Jackson sings for him a 12-minute epic with 42 verses. “All of human cruelty was contained within it. . . . It was about lust, betrayal, sexual jealousy.”

As it happens, “Lust, Betrayal and Sexual Jealousy” would make a perfect subtitle for Barry’s collection, which arrives on the heels of his superb 2019 novel, “Night Boat to Tangier.” Nearly all of the 11 tales in the book examine the brutal bliss of romantic love, infatuation and carnal gratification. Most take place in the wilds of northwestern Ireland, in the shadows of the Ox Mountains. In the opener, “The Coast of Leitrim,” a man named Seamus falls in love with Katherine, a Polish waitress who works in a local cafe. Though Katherine welcomes his advances, Seamus is wracked by self-doubt: “He could handle just about anything, he felt, shy of a happy outcome. . . . What kind of maniac could fall for the likes of me, he wondered.” In “Ox Mountain Death Song,” a police detective hunts down the latest in a lineage of villainous rakes bearing the family name Canavan. The Canavans, we’re told, “had for decades and centuries brought to the Ox elements that were by turn very complicated and very simple: occult nous and racy semen.”

As the title of that story suggests, the animating force behind these tortuous yearnings and consummations is mortality — or the fear of it. Even as he is dying of cancer, Canavan beds, then beats a drunken widow. In “Old Stock,” the narrator visits his Uncle Aldo, who is on his deathbed. “Aldo had drunk like a fool always and chased women and crashed cars.” His cause of death? “The west of Ireland.” The narrator inherits Aldo’s cottage, which has supernatural powers of seduction. “Get them sat in there by a peat fire,” Aldo says before expiring, “and they can’t keep the clothes on their backs.” Instead, the narrator decides to sell it. However, things get romantically complicated when an attractive young solicitor takes a seat by the hearth to go over the estate paperwork with him.

Three stories in the collection are told from a female perspective. In “Deer Season,” a teenage girl determined to lose her virginity lures a solitary forestry worker into an intimate liaison. The brief affair destroys the man’s life, while the girl feels the “quick thrum of new sexual power.” In “Roma Kid,” which inverts many of the themes of “Deer Season,” a 9-year-old runaway named Kizzy is taken in by an elderly bachelor who lives in a book-stuffed trailer in the woods. This is the gentlest story in the book, examining the love between a surrogate parent and child. “They settled to a type of collusion with each other,” Barry writes. “She lived long and calmly, and calmly even went the moment of his eclipsing, when she became and replaced him.”

A few of the entries here amount to less than fully developed stories.

“Who’s-Dead McCarthy” is a character sketch about a Limerick man who is a walking, talking obituary page, a “connoisseur of death.” “Extremadura (Until Night Falls)” is narrated by a ghostly spirit wandering the west of Ireland. These slighter stories sustain the thematic cohesion of the book while offering a change of tone and pace. They are the mortar between the bricks. Like their more fully rendered counterparts, they feature Barry’s distinctive prose stylings: coarse and lyrical, arresting and often hilarious. There are verbal titillations and delights on nearly every page, but also an undertow of sorrow. I’ve already quoted liberally, but allow me a couple more. In the title story, a pregnant teenager named Hannah waits in a van while her much older tattoo-artist boyfriend goes to commit a robbery armed with a claw hammer. “The transit van smelled of a stale morning mouth,” Barry writes, unforgettably. When the duplicitous truth of her boyfriend’s errand is revealed, Hannah thinks: “The strongest impulse she had was not towards love but towards that burning loneliness, and she knew by nature the old tune’s circle and turn — it’s the way the wound wants the knife wants the wound wants the knife.”

Barry’s old country music cuts deep into the reader’s heart.

Jon Michaud is the author of the novel “When Tito Loved Clara.”

That Old Country Music


By Kevin Barry

Doubleday. 208 pp. $23.95