Kevin Barry: “Ox Mountain Death Song”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Kevin Barry’s “Ox Mountain Death Song” was originally published in the October 29 & November 5, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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I’ve only read one Kevin Barry short story, “Fjord of Killary,” which I am now surprised to find out I didn’t like (see here). I don’t remember what happens in it, but I do remember the ominous feel, and if I hadn’t just read my thoughts probably would have told anyone asking that I liked it. Well, perhaps my first impression of Kevin Barry was simply wrong. After all, last year he was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize for his collection Dark Lies the Island. Earlier this year he published his debut novel, City of Bohane, which I’ve heard good things about.

I really enjoyed this short (three-page) story about a manhunt in the Ox Mountains of Ireland. I am still trying to wrap my head around the ending, which is also welcome.

One reason I liked this one more than many other recent offerings in The New Yorker is that Barry has a unique, strong voice, but he’s actually using it to say something, and the natural vim of his voice combined with the folksy tone (he addresses the reader subtly throughout) goes a long way to making this an entertaining as well as a highly troubling read. When we begin, we meet the criminal, Canavan:

He had been planting babies all over the Ox Mountains since he was seventeen years old. Well, he had the hair for it, and the ferret grin, and there 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 back roads, under the silly, silly moonlight.

It’s a cynical tone that mocks the mood of love. Maybe for good reason, because this particular Canavan, who is 29 years old, is only the most recent in a long line of Canavans to build up to trouble: “Each in the stepped line of the generations was a taunt to the next: a taunt to exceed, go further.” It’s as if the Canavan generations represent evil, and time changes only the style:

The years gave in, the years gave out, and only the trousers changed — breeches of sackcloth gave way to rain-soaked gabardine, gave way to tobacco-scented twill, and on to the denim variations (boot cut; straight leg; at glamorous times, beflared), and then to the nylon track pant, and then to cotton sweats. The signal gesture of a Canavan in all this time did not change: it was a jerk of the thumb to the waistband to hoick up the pants.

On the other side of the archetypal spectrum is Sergeant Tom Brown, most recent in a long line of guards and policemen. He’s sixty-five and nearly retired. He would really like to take care of Canavan before then. Making all worse is the fact that Canavan is suffering from terminal cancer. His oncologist confirmed Sergeant Brown’s fear:

“An auld fella might slow it,” he said. “A young fella won’t.”

They know that before Canavan dies — soon — he will kill someone. And so we enter the Ox Mountains, and the old Sergeant Brown is hunting high and low for the young Canavan. It’s a disturbing conclusion, and it doesn’t take long for you to get there and see how these forces as old as time confront each other at this moment. And we know from the first words of the story that this is not the last Canavan. Little Canavans are growing all over the Ox Mountains.

One aspect that made me slightly uncomfortable was the view of the women involved here. Canavan is violent, and you know he mixes violence with sex; yet the women continue to love and protect him. Whoever the narrator of this story is casts his cynical eye over these girls, “some heated foolish girl.” I don’t think it’s a spoiler, but before I end this review I want to highlight the last few sentences:

These mountains, their insistences: those who would run would run, and those who must follow must follow, and waiting — oh, wasn’t there always — some heated foolish girl. Listen –

The tinkled chime of her laugh against the mountain black as she feigns outrage at a dropped hand, and now — listen — the tiniest of brushing of the air as her eyelashes close and bring down the darkness: the falling-in-love-all-over-again.

I think they’re amazing. The rhythm, “listen,” the fact that this story ends with “falling-in-love-all-over-again”: this world-view is highly disturbing and beautifully rendered and placed at the end of this violent story that begins making fun of those girls and their “silly, silly moonlight.” I think it’s terrible, yet I think the story is fantastic. I can’t get behind the narrator’s cynicism and I can’t cast blame where he does — I think that’s a dangerous misunderstanding — yet I cannot ignore his voice in the world, and I’m glad Barry had the skill and courage to present it.

Now, how will I feel about this story when the glow of the prose has passed? I’m anxious to see, and I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.

15 thoughts on “Kevin Barry: “Ox Mountain Death Song””

  1. NancyKay Shapiro says:

    Try his novel, CITY OF BOHANE. I read that without realizing I’d seen a few of his stories already, and it was so weird and funny and ominous and epical and just … weird, that I was completely won over to watching the skies for his next appearance.

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m glad to hear that, Nancy. I have seen City of Bohane mentioned quite often, usually with a good recommendation, but I never felt much desire to read it. I really enjoyed this story, though, so I need to look into the novel!

  3. Matthew Geyer says:

    I’ve just happened on mookseandgripes, and delighted to have done so. I noticed the blog posting here on Kevin Barry, and reprint below my own take on him and City of Bohane, if you’re interested:

    Kevin Barry is going to be somebody. That’s what I thought when I read his apocalyptic short story in The New Yorker, “Fjord of Killary”, a year or two ago. This sent me searching the web, where I found his previous short story collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, available from a small Irish literary press by way of an independent overseas bookseller. Kevin Barry already is somebody, I thought when I read those tales: He’s an heir to William Trevor, like Banville and Toibin. But this one’s ten or twenty years younger than those, so the line is growing at a natural, Irish pace.

    In his first novel, published last year in Europe and this year in the US, Barry explores the devolution of western society and culture in a futuristic tale that is anything but science fiction. The language of the book, both the dialogue and the narration, represent what will become of the English language by 2053 if the current course holds. A melange of hip-hop drug-running street-slang wafts through the streets of a fictional coastal town in the West of Ireland, where the polluted Bohane river emerges from the Irish countryside—aka “The Big Nothin’, ya sketch?—to flow through the city of the same name to a blackened sea. On the south side of the river, Smoketown is a place of sex parlors and opium dens, all run on graft, young hoors shaved head to toe, and tribal inheritances and alliances soon to be shaken yet again when an old chieftain rolls back into town. Up the slope on the other side of the river, the Northside Rises are home to another nest of criminals and hooligans. In between, what serves as the establishment—even the blue bloods are cynical and uncouth in this land—are soon needing to prepare for the worst. Nary a cell-phone or a laptop or a satellite dish in sight, gang fights and melees are fought with knuckles and knives and old-time savagery. And there is hell to pay, one way or another.

    Kevin Barry. Check any of it out, including City of Bohane. A young Irish writer of this caliber is a new world treasure.

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Matthew. I am more and more convinced to pick up Barry’s novel. I wonder, though, if you’d expand on how he is an heir to William Trevor. Other than their nationality, so far I’ve seen little to relate the two.

  5. Matthew Geyer says:

    The resemblance to Trevor is nowhere to be seen in City of Bohane, Fjord of Killary or Ox Mountain Death Song. But you’ll see it in his first short stories, collected in There Are Little Kingdoms. It’s a very interesting thing, how different those very early stories are from the others. What I need to read is the other short story collection, Dark Lies the Island, published only in the UK maybe; and I look forward to it.

    – Matt

  6. Aaron says:

    I’ve got a response to this one coming up on my site within the next few days, but since I’m once again the minority dissent (good thing I’m back!), I’ll say that the broad archetypes and lyrical, Romantic writing did nothing for me. I can appreciate what he’s doing in a poetic sense, and understand that he’s talented as a writer, but what’s the point of this Irish mood? Barry gives us a lot of lore, but doesn’t deliver on any character — which is what you’d expect when you drill down to the core of a struggle between Good and Evil. (Otherwise it’s just a morality tale, if even.)

    I also have problems with the fact that Canavan’s evil isn’t ever all that visible. Yes, he abuses and takes advantage of women, but it’s the officer who illegally detains and then murders him, or did I miss the part where this latest bad boy actually slips from battering to murdering? And if this is about the ethics of pre-emptively killing someone who will grow (or decline) into a greater evil, there’s really only a slight paragraph (if even) toward the end that contemplates that. So what is this story really about? More an atmospheric piece of poetry than a stirring bit of prose, no?

  7. Trevor says:

    I didn’t have trouble with this one, as you know. Though I see your points, they didn’t bother me here as they perhaps normally would have. I was certainly distracted by the narrator’s view of women and of his view as the person in charge and responsible to rid the world of evil. I think that’s what the story was about more than anything, though I think it’s all below the surface. It could be, though, that that’s what I latched on to :) .

  8. Ken says:

    I think we sbould take Brown’s attitude somewhat ironically. I don’t think his murder of Canavan is meant as justified or heroic. I think the murder of Canavan is the killing that has been ominiously predicted and which we assume will be done by Cannavan not to him. Not that Canavan is any kind of saint but I do think we must realize the deep bias and ingrained prejudice of Brown. I liked the sense of cyclical, repetitive mythic violence. These two clans have always hated each other and done violence to each other. It’s like a ballad and the folksy, poetic language furthers that.

  9. Aaron says:

    Sure, I agree that the tone is mythic/poetic and “ballad” comes closest to describing that. Guess that’s just not my style.

  10. Madwomanintheattic says:

    Ok, Trevor, I think you can stop worrying about the view of women in the “silly,silly moonlight,” given the recent news of dazzled men in the silly, silly army. As a confirmed feminist, I only laughed at Barry’s depiction of what a boy with a ferret grin can do to the best of our intentions. I was not troubled either by the fat constable’s tipping Canavan over the edge – I think he did him a favor. Did anybody else have the sense, given the mythic/poetic tone, that it was a mercy? Into the ballad comes the oncologist – what a lovely, surprising and fresh mixture.

  11. Trevor says:

    Oh, your name never left me in any doubt. One of my favorite books. But it isn’t the boy with the grin who concerns me (though, in real life, yes, he concerns me). It’s Tom Brown’s view that Canavan was only partially to blame, that if the girls would just stop being foolish, the Canavan line would dry up. That said, the story has grown on me a lot, and my knee jerk reaction against Brown’s views has transformed into an admiration for Barry’s characterization.

  12. Betsy says:

    Kevin Barry’s “Ox Mountain Death Song” makes me listen to its music even while I am resisting. I am fearful of where this “ballad” is taking me, I am doubtful about its assumptions, and wary of its beautifying terrible things. But Kevin Barry’s voice is just plain alluring. So the question is, can he be trusted?

    I think so. As I read, I slowly recognize the Canavans and the Tom Browns in my own life and history (and actually, in myself). The music of it leads me to that dark territory, and in the end, I am not comforted by the music as much as I am unsettled. It is that being unsettled that makes reading this story worth it. But I have to say, I loved the music.

    The story is surprising and twisty. It has a little of the feel of Poe, a little of the feel of James – the mystery, the psychology, the slow reveal.

    Here is a case where the New Yorker interview with the author is a magnificent opportunity. I really enjoyed hearing him talk about how he follows “the music of a sentence” even if it takes the meaning in a new direction. Anyone who has ever tried to write to the music in the words is interested. You do wonder, though, how Barry manages to ride that horse. Most of us know we cannot keep our seat.

    One of the ways he does it is he is not just relying on the music in the words. He says he hears emotions in the landscape. He says that for this story, he visited and revisited a particular real place, tells of hearing both the place and things its people have said. You think about how the mountains and the sea in this story are part of its rhythm: the counterpoint of it.

    And the fact is, part of the music is the way the elusive Canavan establishes a kind of rhythm, appearing and reappearing, making us follow him deeper and deeper, wanting to see those witch hazel eyes again, the languor, the sulfur, the lip. For us Americans, we fill in the Canavan with echoes of our own doomed elusives: our Elvis, our Marilyn, our Bonnie and Clydes. So there’s a resonating music there as well.

    Kevin Barry probably divides the audience – there must be those, like me, who can’t resist him, and I suppose there are people who, constitutionally, can’t go there. So be it.

    Read the story. Read the interview. I don’t know which I enjoyed more. Kevin Barry has the feel of a man from whom language just pours: beautiful, resonating, complex language. This is not a man who is tongue tied without his pen. You get the feeling from the interview that he could talk quite a while before you got tired. Kind of like an evening with Conrad, where you sit down after dinner over drinks and when midnight is finally over, you’ve reached “The Heart of Darkness”.

    Barry can use words you’ve never heard before and you love it. “The occult nous”! What the heck! There’s a slippery moment! Do I look it up? Do I keep going? In the end, I decided I had a sense of it and kept going. Some kind of contrast, some kind of “among us” idea.

    Well – then I did look it up: “Nous [Gr nous, noos] Philos – mind, reason or intellect, specif., as a metaphysical principal.” There’s a whole essay as to why Barry used “the occult nous” right there and got away with it. But I loved the way I thought French and he meant Greek, and maybe also the English noose, and he has looped us in, and tricked us at the same time, and it all shimmers.

    And “fungating”! Same thing – think something about fungus while you’re reading (and well, also fun) and look it up later and there are two notes, the first, a low one, and the second – a really orchestral low note, giving almost an oscillation to the story telling.

    Oh, and, let us not forget the way Barry ties the word occult to the word nous to the idea of philosophy to the idea of a word that has gone unchanged, for centuries. There’s another linguistic conversation.

    And yet, it’s not just language, not just the beautiful sound echo-locating round your brain and luring you into thinking there’s some kind of meaning when there isn’t.

    In the interview, Barry describes how he took a slow physical process to develop the story, and it is really worth reading the interview itself to hear that. You see how the language comes later and is in the end a means to the vision that was there from the beginning. He does use the words “epic” and “myth”, though – so it’s a grand concept he’s embarked with you upon, and trusted the reader with. Maybe that’s what I liked about it.

    You’re out there on the wire with him. Can he be trusted to get you over Niagara? I think it’s that question that makes him really interesting. He makes you think, with the language, with the story telling, that you’re on the wire and you’re over Niagara. Then it’s up to you to decide.

  13. Trevor says:

    Great write-up, Betsy, and I’m glad to see the discomfort come out of your reading too.

  14. Aclare Ranger says:

    Hi, could I get a read of the Ox Moutain death song without subscribing to The New Yorker?

  15. Trevor says:

    Hi Aclare, I’m afraid I cannot help you with that. You may check out the table of contents for his short story collections, though. Perhaps it’s in one of those.

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