It seems counterintuitive, but short stories are more difficult to write—at least to write well—than longer works. Although I’ve written all my life, short stories are a form I have yet to master. Maybe that’s why I admire and celebrate really good short stories. It takes skill to pick readers up, quickly orient them to another world, and immediately immerse them in it.
Some contemporary short stories leave me wondering what the point was, but occasionally I come across a story that sparkles all the way through the reading and lingers in my memory long afterward.
Fjord of Killary, by Kevin Barry, which was featured in The New Yorker several years ago, is one such story. I tore it out of the magazine and held onto it, which is why I still remember it.
It begins: So I bought an old hotel on the fjord of Killary. I was immediately taken by the off-hand tone, as if the narrator were relating this tale to a friend or acquaintance, perhaps in a bar. He continues: It was set hard by the harbor wall, with Mweelrea Mountain across the water, and disgracefully gray skies above. Disgracefully gray skies are something I can relate to. I’m listening. It rained two hundred and eighty-seven days of the year, and the locals were given to magnificent mood swings. I can picture this place and its inhabitants already, just three sentences in.
On the night in question, the rain was particularly violent–it came down like handfuls of nails flung hard and fast by a seriously riled sky god. As well as being wonderfully descriptive, that sentence might very well be perfect. I was at this point eight months in the place and about convinced that it would be the death of me. End of first paragraph. We readers are set up with everything we need to know. And we know something is about to happen. If we are too dense to figure that out, though, he then says: “It’s end-of-the-fucking-world stuff out there,” I said.
One of the things I like about this story is that all the characters who speak talk the way I do when I’m not self-censoring. To wit, local funeral director, John Murphy, speaking to no one in particular, in these three successive paragraphs: “I’ll bury anythin’ that fuckin’ moves,” he said. “Bastards, suicides, tinkers,” he said. “I couldn’t give a fuckin’ monkey’s,” he said. While the casual cussing certainly isn’t the only thing I like about the story, it does make me feel comfortable. I could fit right in with those folks, at least for an evening.
And the last sentence is an absolute gem, one of those things that may not have occurred to you before, but that you realize the truth and humor of as soon as you hear (or read) it. It’s a bit of a celebration all by itself—especially for those of us of a certain age. But I won’t spoil it. Here’s the link to the complete story in The New Yorker.
Kevin Barry was born in Limerick in 1959 and now lives in Dublin. He’s published sketches, columns, and stories for a number of newspapers in Ireland, England, the U.S., and elsewhere. His short story collection, There are Little Kingdoms, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2007. His first novel, City of Bohane, about “a small and murderous West Ireland city,” was published in April 2011 and reviewed by Pete Hamil in The New York Times.
This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.