Colin Barrett’s short story collection Young Skins is a very good collection and it achieves this success, I think, via a peculiar admixture of components that are rarely packaged with one another.
First, Barrett’s work dallies with gothic literature, which I think has been manifesting itself more and more in contemporary Irish settings. A number of gothic gestures crop up in both Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart and in Claire Keegan’s short story collection Walk the Blue Fields. The gothic, in its current incarnation in primarily rural settings in twentieth, twenty-first century Ireland is perhaps attributable to the work of Patrick MacCabe.
By way of example, the second story in Young Skins, ‘Bait,’ suddenly transplants itself from a pool hall, which could be an establishment in any small town in Ireland, into a forest right out of Hawthorne: “Leaves depended from the fingerlings of branch ends and brushed my face like dry, frail-veined moths. I stumbled onward over stones, over monstrous hanks of rooted scrub. The smell of the woods in summer was heavy around me, and it stank of fucking.” Props here first for restoring a somewhat archaic, literal definition of ‘depended.’ Second, just as these monstrous features of this landscape seems to have recessed and we are restored to a lyrical descriptive response to the heavy summer air, Barrett alerts us to the bang off the woods (or air). Point, it also doesn’t just smell like sex, it smells like the verb, the actual doing.
This sudden nightmarish tint that the story takes on towards its end is fitting; Barrett’s narrators are all prone to a certain morbidity, and tend to see the skull beneath the skin, or the ‘delta of veinwork’ tremulously pulsing beneath the skin. Which is another facet of the stories that I enjoyed, I think it’s among writing that I’ve encountered that is most attuned to the body, in all its corporeal effulgence. Insofar as I have a handle on the matter, a ‘skin’ in contemporary parlance refers to a person. One would call a decent, dependable human being a ‘good skin.’ This connotation of ‘young people’ is what the title of the collection putatively refers to, but it is an implication that is constantly unsettled by what is contained in the stories themselves. Barrett’s characters, whether they be adolescents, young adults, adult adults, are aged beyond themselves; even the children are aping feudal hierarchies or suddenly disappearing, rather than just being children. Further, veins or arteries are referred to quite a bit, there’s the aforementioned ‘delta of veinwork,’ aswell as a suggestion that the character in ‘Stand your Skin’ may have black blood, that he may be somewhat less than vital.
This is the most important component of Young Skins to me, that it is composed of concentrated, cool and descriptive original prose, so convincing that it isn’t afraid to handle symbolism and makes also, the occasional flirtations with hard-bitten, HBO-type drama cliché, more digestible.