TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD of fiction readers is to understand the world of romance readers.
Despite the valiant efforts of 20th-century literati to make us believe fiction is about an elbow-patched sect dealing with heady issues in dens filled with pipe smoke, the books that keep fiction readers coming back for more are typically those focused on the pains of finding and keeping a lover. In the recent memoir The Happily Ever After — about one literary author, Avi Steinberg, becoming a romance novelist — Steinberg clarifies that even those books we think of as important original literary efforts often survive because they manage to render many of the prominent aspects of a romance novel. It’s hard to imagine any reader caring as much about A Farewell to Arms or Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary without those authors giving us stories that mirror the dramatic arc of a romance paperback — until the very end, of course.
In his latest short story collection, That Old Country Music, Kevin Barry offers 11 tales, all of which employ some aspect of the romance genre. Barry had an impressive literary career even before this latest effort, with three published novels and two short story collections, for which he has been the recipient of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Goldsmiths Prize, The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. His works feature a lyricism that flows naturally from his prominently working-class Irish characters, who face many challenges, not the least of which are their own crooning hearts. With this new collection, the author seems especially keen on bridging the gap between lyrical and narrative concerns — in other words, creating something beautiful while also making sure the reader cares.
In the first story of the collection, “The Coast of Leitrim,” the protagonist Seamus struggles to escape his mundane, directionless life for something more passionate and fulfilling. The focus of his interest becomes the Polish immigrant Katherine, who waits tables at a local restaurant:
They walked the shingle beach. He told her as much as was bearable to tell about himself. He had gone to college in Galway to study French and business, but he had not finished his degree. He was not by his nature a finisher of things, he said. He had never said this before or really even thought it and it was a surprise to him.
Katherine becomes the thing outside himself that Seamus thinks he needs to fix on the inside. Eventually, Seamus finds fault with Katherine, which on a psychological level can’t help but be the same weakness that prevents him from advancing his life. Such a psychological block also doubles, according to Steinberg, as what’s known in the romance writing world as “the Barrier.” In a traditional romance, the Barrier is something outside the struggling lovers that keeps them from being together: a psychotic ex-boyfriend, a criminal past, a society that looks down upon relationships that broach class or race divisions. The thing keeping Seamus and Katherine from each other is Seamus’s inability to deal with the broken parts of himself. The crushing feeling that ensues is recognizable to any watcher of Days of our Lives.
Barry’s collection, as it unfolds, takes turns toward the less formally romantic, but it’s never a stretch to see these stories through the romance lens. “Ox Mountain Death Song” centers on a detective’s pursuit of the heartless criminal Canavan, who “had been planting babies all over the Ox Mountains since he was seventeen years old.” Yes, Canavan is a hound, but wasn’t Don Juan as well?
[T]here was hardly a female specimen along that part of the Sligo-Mayo border that hadn’t taken the scan of his hazel glance, or hadn’t had the hard word laid on, in the dark corners of bars, or in the hormone maelstrom of the country discos, or in untaxed cars, down backroads, under the silly, silly moonlight.
I’m reminded of lines from the chorus of the Rosanne Cash song “Seven Year Ache”: “The boys say ‘when is he gonna give us some room.’ / The girls say, ‘God, I hope he comes back soon.’” Canavan is good for nothing and no one, but romance — as Jane Campion reminds us in the epigraph of Barry’s collection — is heroic and therefore more or less doomed.
The travails of the oversexed male crescendo in “Old Stock,” in which a nephew travels to attend to the failing health and property of his scoundrel uncle Aldo. Once Aldo passes on, the narrator comes to realize that his uncle’s claims of the special powers his cottage has over the ladies are in fact true:
[I]n my own unreliable ways I was precisely in the line of Aldo’s stock, my reckless green-eyed uncle who had broken the hearts of nuns and blind girls, had stabbed friends in the shoulders if he missed their backs, had propositioned my mother in the scullery of an Easter Sunday morning.
At another point in The Happily Ever After, Steinberg talks with a romance editor about his idea for a Morman romance novel. In Steinberg’s idea, a husband deals with the affections of his many wives. The editor gently reminds him that that’s Steinberg’s fantasy, and if he hopes to do well as a romance novelist, he’d better start thinking in terms of women’s fantasies.
True, Barry’s tales are often romantic from a male heterosexual point of view, and most of them eventually break from the familiar tropes associated with the form. In literary fiction, breaking the mold of a form is largely smiled upon, an attempt at something new. In the romance publishing world, according to Steinberg, breaking with these tropes might end your career.
The most prominent trope of the romance genre is the happily ever after, or HEA. It’s a way of ending a story that requires no explanation for anyone hooked on The Love Boat television series at a young age — or so I’ve heard. According to Steinberg, there is no more necessary element to a story in the romance genre than the HEA, to the point that the HEA is how you know for sure you’re reading a romance.
I won’t give up the endings to any of the stories in Barry’s collection, but I think it’s important to mention that they run the gamut between accepting and rejecting HEAs. One story less concerned with romance — if not endings — is “Toronto and the State of Grace,” which focuses on the arrival of middle-aged Tony and his beautiful, elderly mother to a rural highway bar. The story is told from the point of view of the jaded bartender Alan, a teetotaler who’s tired of the harsh winters and, on this day, wants nothing more than to close the bar and pass the night in front of his media devices. Mother and son proceed to discuss the glory days of Tony’s conception — when mom and dad were Shakespearean actors in Toronto — while sampling every bottle behind Alan’s bar. The author is less concerned with the long past romance of mom and dad than with letting mom and Tony act out for their audience of one:
“Of course in Toronto,” she said, “there wasn’t a great deal to do in the evenings. And the show’d finish for seven!”
“He gave her one down the fish dock,” Tony said.
“Oh Tony,” she said.
“By the mighty Ontario,” he said.
“Folks,” I said, “listen, I mean really…”
“County Mayo-style,” he said. “You know what I mean, soldier?”
The pair are entertaining drunks. You’re waiting for something to go wrong, and it does. I mention the story to emphasize that Barry is in no way handcuffed by the romance genre. It’s his favorite tool of the collection to create a compelling story, but if another works just a well, so be it.
In the story that shares the collection’s name, Barry’s knack for evocative prose is his best tool for carving out romance where little ostensibly exists. In the story, pregnant Hannah serves as the getaway driver for Setanta, the father of her forthcoming child, who heads into town to rob a petrol station. Setanta is 32 years old, Hannah 17, “and it was not long at all since he had been her mother’s fiancé.” In such a scenario, it’s hard to imagine how a young family starts out on the right foot, but knocking over the local gas station with a claw hammer doesn’t seem like a good way forward, especially since Setanta is a bit of a softy:
It was difficult to believe that just last night she had laughed with excitement as she took the first baby bump photo for her Insta and Setanta’s needle buzzed jauntily as he tattooed a lizard on his left calf. He told her in a voice scratchy with emotion that he loved her and that their souls were made of the same kind of stuff. She licked his earlobe and showed him the selfie and he cried in hard, gulpy jags.
The pair’s love might be hopeless, but it’s love of the most potent kind. The sense of doom surrounding their relationship gets brought to the fore by the story’s unexpected climax, or as Barry puts it, “the way the wound wants the knife wants the wound wants the knife.”
If what Barry writes in That Old Country Music is romance, it’s romance of the most fraught and resonant kind. A blade going in has never felt sweeter.
Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in Salon, The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Book and Film Globe, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He was co-founder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.