Young Skins
Colin Barrett
(Stinging Fly Press
Box 6016
Dublin 1)
Jimmy is downing pints with his friend Tug, there at a bar called Fandangos. Tug is also known as Manchild: "He is big and he is unpredictable." Jimmy is in a snit because of Marlene. They were on-again off-again and then she got pregnant. It was Cuculann did it.

Jimmy says "I should feel a measure of gratitude towards the lad for taking the paternity bullet I dodged," but when they meet again in Fandangos that night, he thinks "My Marlene," then If it weren't for the acne scars worming across her cheeks, she'd be a beauty. When they pass the table --- she's with Cuculann --- she takes the trouble to turn to Jimmy and tell him that she is "gone very happy" and he should "fuck off."

Shortly after, in the parking lot, they pass Cuculann's hatchback, and Jimmy says to Manchild "Be awful if you were to tip that thing onto its head." No sooner said than done and

    For a moment the car hangs on its side in the air --- and I see the vasculature of blackened pipes that run along its underside --- then Tug lurches forward and the hatchback goes over onto its roof with an enormous crunching sound. The passenger window shatters, the glass skittering in diamonds around our feet. The wheels judder in the air and Tug reaches out and stills the one closest

Marlene's lipstick falls on the ground and Jimmy grabs it and carefully writes

on the uptilted door.

§   §   §

If Barrett were one of those professonals recently graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he'd engineer a war between Jimmy and Cuculann, getting one of them wrecked like the car. But Barrett comes out of another school of writing, perhaps one invented by himself: so next we we get a quick aside on Tug's mother, waiting at home for her boy. She's "a sweet old ruin of an alcoholic"

    who spends her days rationing gin on their ancient, spring-pocked settee, lost in TV and her dead. You say hello and she offers an agreeable but doubtful smile; half the time she had no idea if you're part of the programme she's engrossed in, a figment of memory, or actually there, a live person before her. She'll call me Tug or Brendan, and she'll call Tug Jimmy ...

We often marvel at writers who can take a new spin like this, bring it to life so quickly. Forget the toppled car, Tug's mother. Follow Jimmy and Tug heading to the broken-down bridge in the middle of town where "Thickets and thickets of midges waver in the air. They feast on the passing planets of our heads."


And who do the two young men meet there on the bridge?

The king.

The king? Yep: he's ten years old, with white hair, "not blonde but white," and he's got some warpaint on, and he's got an aluminum rod that he waves back and forth.

    "What are you, an injun?" Tug asks him.

    "I'm a king!" the boy sneers ... "This is my bridge," he says, baring his teeth.

    "And what if we want to pass?" Tug says.

    "Not if I don't say so!"

Instead of the Manchild or his buddy being led off into the killing fields, Barrett takes them off in another direction entirely, one that changes would-be monsters into ones that we might, at some point in our lives, have known, maybe liked.

And this is how it goes all the way through Young Skins. The day-in-day-out life in County Mayo with skins, in their twenties, complete with overtones of skinheads ("skin" is also the rolling paper that one uses to make a joint). Barrett gives us seven stories that tell of the underemployed, those separated from the "brainboxes" that went off to college. Those left behind pump gas, drive trucks or work in places like Fandangos as bouncers.

Their lives can be sour and dead end, but there are times when they find a most unexpected poetry --- often bitter urban poetry --- in their lives. One explains that to be a boxer (which he was) "You have to want to hurt people. That's what the spring is. You have to keep wanting to hurt people."

Here they are just marking time, with their own rhythm, going for a pint during the day:

    Weekday afternoons in the bar were morgue quiet, the only regular customers a handful of the town's senior pissheads, intent on drinking through their pension money by a respectable hour.

We also run across a young lady, who was slated to go to college, but, instead, "had grown up and into herself." First night on the job she shows up sporting

    a pair of knee-high leather boots and strategically placed pink tights, hair dyed to a high orange flame, and a murderous glint in her eye that said the dowdy teenage bookworm of yesteryear was dead and gone.

Young toughs appear repeatedly in this collection, and they may bash batter and break --- but they have mothers who can get in a stew over them. We think Tug is going to beat someone senseless, or might even himself get beaten senseless, but meanwhile his mother "has dreams of his bike leaving the road, a body red rent along the macadam of some bleak country lane and the massive settling silence afterwords. This is what a mother must do: preemptively conjure the worst-case scenarios in order to avert them."

The center story is a jewel. It runs seventy pages and joins all the themes in all the others: love gone wrong, too much drink, family --- Irish family --- vengeance; mindless jobs, noisy cars "that stank of motor oil, cigarette ash and dog," complete with "cassette-tape slot jammed with calcified gobs of blue tack, cigarette butt-ends and pre-euro-era Irish coins."

We also find a low level dope retailer (Dympna) and his muscle (Armstrong), and the plot quickly sucks us in, comes to a vortex ... the reader infatuated with the characters, trying to get them to stop, cool it, don't do that, you don't want to do that. And they do it anyway and we can't, we won't put it (the book ... or them) down.

Young Skins is worth your time. For one, how bad can a dope deal go, dragging down a whole family of sons, lovers and paterfamilias? There are two brother uncles who grudgingly grow the pot but they are sullen and old and wetly obscene, especially since one of them has just taken up with what we used to call "a widow-lady." "The man has an unconscionable stack of sprays and perfumes set in there by the bed," says his brother. "He bathes himself every second day. He has these little nail clippers. He wants nothing to do with the silage."

The widow Mirkin (sic) appears at the very end of the story. She's a nice unflappable lady, even when Armstrong bats her lover around. A widow with the dark brown hair, "raked back from her forehead and set in place with a simple, girlish band." Perhaps Arm will have to kill her, or rob her, or kill uncle Hector, who, he tells her, "is playing you for a fool. His kind is poisonous. You've been letting a snake in through your door."

Once again, the story is supposed to go this way and Barrett takes it way over there and we are wondering how can he get away with this? Yet once the widow Maire Mirkin wedges her way onto the pages, she not only belongs, she rounds out the whole mess perfectly, puts FIN where it belongs, there at the end.

§   §   §

The critics are trying to figure out where to put Barrett. Some want to call up Joyce from a hundred years ago, but I think they're dead wrong. The only writer who immediately came to mind for me was J. P. Donleavy, a writer who was also able to haul in a nice literary fix at the most awkward times ... a touch of the human in the midst of chaos. Here in "Calm with Horses," Armstrong --- they call him "Arm" --- might find himself shot dead at any moment. And what does he do? Lying there on the ground, he opens his eyes, looks up to see

    beyond the house, the upper part of the hill, the graded billows of green and brown and purple fronds turning languidly in the wind, then turning back again. Beyond the hill's crest a tiny plane slipped frictionlessly across the sky, shedding a wake of thin white exhaust that feathered apart as it hung there, in the grey.

--- Pamela Wylie
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