Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Colin Barrett's “The Ways” was originally published in the January 5, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
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“The Ways” takes place in contemporary, somewhat rural, somewhat trapped-class Ireland. The narrative switches between the orphaned siblings: 23-year-old Nick, 16-year-old Pell (a girl who misses the boys at school), and Gerry, who feels like a 12-year-old boy. Things are not going well. The parents finished dying two years ago. Pell has quit school: she couldn’t get out of bed on the first day back in September, and now she drinks when and if she pleases. Nick is working an 18-hour day at the kitchen in the down-at-heels hotel in town, serious and sober now after having been pretty wild before his parents died. Gerry gets into scrapes at school and takes a lot of refuge in video games. In his interview with Cressida Leyshon (here), Barrett says they are lost in their “impregnable inarticulacy.”

The characters’ inability to talk with each other extends to their almost equal inability to reflect upon their situation, the exception being Gerry, in a flash, at the end.

Pell’s inarticulacy seems extended to her inner life; cleverly, she observes that boys “talk at” her, rather than to her, but that appears to be the limit of our access to her inner existence. She appears paralyzed: she cannot get out of bed to go to school, she doesn’t get out of bed after her brothers have gone off for the day. She cannot get up off the ice when she falls on her butt, and she does resist when Nick pulls her out of bed. Although she fixes dinner for her little brother, she cannot convince him to leave his room to come to eat it. She is unconnected, adrift, overwhelmed. The one gleam of hope is that she gets Gerry to admit that he started the fight, and she offers some advice — “that the world is packed with dickheads” and he’s going to have to “stop rising to them.”

Nick is not as frozen as Pell, but he’s mired in his work day and his responsibilities. He does have a human response to a work-mate, observing that while he, Nick, doesn’t approve of Heng changing his name to Sean, Nick realizes it’s a probably effective accommodation to the situation of being an immigrant in Ireland. And we see that he brings home the groceries. He sticks with them.

There is hope, too, given that Pell has waited up for Nick, and they are heard talking, although what they’re saying does not come through.

Gerry’s a little mess — spending his time fighting, holed up in his room, and playing video games. The hope for him is that we overhear him mentally apologizing to Nick and Pell.

A nice article about Barrett appeared last summer in The Guardian shortly after he won the big Frank O’Connor International short story prize for his collection of stories entitled Young Skins (here). The article (which also has an appealing picture of Barrett) notes that the O’Connor prize has gone in the past to people like Haruki Murakami.

Barrett is from Ireland, and the story is peppered with the vernacular. Kids who are playing hooky are “on the doss,” and a tall, skinny boy looks like a “string of piss.” There’s “bollocks,” “bumchum,” and bageen,” as well as a “parping” car and a mom the boys call a “mare.”

I wouldn’t say this is the narrator’s voice, though; the narrator is cool and restrained and reserved. He is merely using accurate language to report the way the kids think, and to also, perhaps, show how their thought is restricted by their language. Barrett is clearly a word-person — he enjoys, for instance, word painting. He draws a teen: “the scanty lichen of an unthriving mustache clinging to his lip.” He deftly captures another teen: “a comely six-foot string of piss.” It doesn’t always work: “She liked their unwieldy bodies — their hands like hammers and their loaflike feet, the way their Adam’s apples beat like the chests of trapped birds when they talked at her.” I get it — the way all of these characters are trapped, the way Pell reads the boys — but at the same time, the sentence is too much of a good thing.

What do I think of “The Ways”? I don’t like the title, although there may be an idiomatic slant to it that I am missing.

The story is more a portrait of a situation than it is a story, and whether you like this depends upon your taste, as does the fact that it has a very gray mood and inconclusive posture. When I think of it, these three kids remind me of some of my high school students — students whose difficult lives I didn’t think would ever change very much, although I hoped their lives might still have sparks of happiness or ecstasy or adventure or love or community.

One difference, I see, between Barrett and me is that Barrett refuses to succumb to wishful thinking. He is careful, careful, careful. There are no lapses into the lyric and no easy intimations of ecstasy.

I wonder a little at the choices of this particular story. The story duplicates the situation in Dave Eggers’  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:  Eggers had to bring up his younger brother Toph after both his parents died of cancer, the difference being that Eggers had some money and came from, apparently, a different social class. There is a hopeful, crazy energy to the Eggers book, and a sad, gray depression surrounding the Munnellys. Another book that deals with lower class kids being orphaned is the YA classic — The Outsiders. And then there is Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir, all three tales of the orphaned life, and yet each time the result is the writer becomes a successful, award-winning writer. It is as if Barrett has chosen this situation (the orphaned teen) in order to make it clear that becoming a world famous writer is not usually the goal or the outcome. Surviving is the goal.

Barrett’s kids seem trapped. His intent seems — more Dubliners than not, more Jacob Riis than not. The story does depend on small flashes of understanding. Pell does make Gerry admit who started the fight. Nick does arrive home at midnight with groceries. Gerry does know he’s putting Pell and Nick through a wringer. These are the slight threads that keep them all from sinking.

So I think it’s Barrett’s terrific reserve that interests me, his resistance to narrative malarkey, and, I have to admit, his setting. Reading about faraway people in faraway places who nonetheless seem real is always very compelling to me.

In a short piece for The Guardian (here), Barrett calls David Foster Wallace his hero, making the point that beneath the surface of Infinite Jest and “its almost defensively elaborate postmodern conceits is a novel brimming with extraordinary compassion and empathy.” I think “The Ways” does exemplify an exercise in empathy: Nick and Pell and Gerry are in such a bad way you want to take over and change them, but in fact what Barrett does is allow them to be themselves. He allows them space on his pristine page, and they don’t sully it; they merely awaken us — to them.

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By |2015-02-03T00:43:35+00:00December 29th, 2014|Categories: Colin Barrett, New Yorker Fiction|20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Majnun Ben-David December 29, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Hi Betsy — I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this story! I think my own reactions were (while independent), quite similar. My full review is up at http://majnunbd.com for those who might be interested. In brief, I too felt that this was closer to a portrait than a traditional story, as the characters don’t seem much different at the end than at the beginning. Even so, I was quite taken with all three of the characters. I found them to be distinct, well-rendered, and intriguing. So my main criticism is really more of a compliment … I wanted more. If this were the start of a novel, I’d be eager to keep reading.

    I don’t have too much to add this time, except to say I appreciated how you placed the story in a broader context (e.g., with Eggers and Flynn) and with the links to the Guardian articles. I was surprised to learn that Barrett was such a big fan of Infinite Jest, given the marked difference in style between that work and Barrett’s. But as you point out, it’s the underlying humanity of the work that connects the two. My small contribution to the broader context is to connect this story with “Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin, which the New Yorker ran back in September. Both are relatively new Irish authors, and their initial collections are both published by The Stinging Fly Press in Dublin.

  2. Roger January 2, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    This is the work of a master stylist. Every paragraph, sentence, and word is a treasure; the dialogue and the exposition just amazed me. I did wish for footnotes at times, as the west Ireland dialect sometimes eluded me, but for the most part I could infer what they meant. And now I know, for instance, that “on the doss” means playing hooky.

    Betsy, I was puzzled by the title as well. But another blogger, Clifford Garstang, points out that “The Ways” refers to how each sibling is dealing with the death of their parents. I am embarrassed I couldn’t figure it out myself.

    Majnun, I also wanted more. Who wouldn’t, with characters like these? Not just the three siblings, but “Sean the Chinaman” and the elderly neighbor with the border collie.

    Apparently Barrett has written a novel and a story collection. I plan to get my hands on both.

  3. Betsy January 3, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Majnun, thank you for letting us know that Danielle McLaughlin and Colin Barrett share the same publisher, and I see they have a collection by Kevin Barry. See them here: http://www.stingingfly.org/

    The Stinging Fly is a magazine begun in 1997, issued three times a year, and dedicated to “seek out, publish and promote the very best new Irish and international writing.” It sounds like running a small magazine is not that easy: they say that in 2004 they “toyed with the idea of giving it all up, but in 2005 came shuffling back with the first issue of a new volume.”

    They also organize the annual Davy Byrnes Award, which gives the winner 15,000 euros – somewhat more in dollars.

    Founder Declan Meade says, “…myself and my friend said, sure, let’s set up a magazine. We knew nothing about what we were doing….But immediately stories started coming in — it took on its own momentum. It just kind of blossomed.” (http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/sting-in-the-tail-for-a-fine-literary-tradition-26630116.html)

    I find that wonderfully inspiring, as well as knowing they almost gave up about seven years in.

    The Stinging Fly Press offers 6 anthologies of short stories, some of them from the Davy Byrnes award, and one collection of short plays. It also has four collections of short stories by one author, among them Colin Barrett and Kevin Barry.

  4. Betsy January 3, 2015 at 10:30 am

    Way to go, Roger – thanks for the Clifford Garstang take on the title.

    You cite him as saying
    ” “The Ways” refers to how each sibling is dealing with the death of their parents.” The terseness of the title allows me to add ‘ways of surviving’ – as in too much drinking, too much working, too much gaming, too much fighting…

    The possibly obvious meaning of the title is blurred, however, by the story’s aggressive use of the local idiom, any one of which could not be understood in isolation. The reader begins by thinking – what the heck does the author mean by that title and then shifts to thinking about all the local slang. The title gets lost in the slang. Irish readers would have known instantly that the title was not a local idiom. The non-Irish reader does not. For that reason, even though Barrett’s hallmark is reserve and economy, I think I would have preferred a title that could not have been mis-read (due to the localisms in the body of the story).

    I will admit that “way” implies not just a manner of coping, but also travel over a course, and also a period of time – that latter one being perhaps an indication of hope. The oldest brother Nick, after all, has let his wild ways go after a period of time, as perhaps both Pell and Gerry may learn to do.

    Anyway, Roger – thanks for that!

  5. Majnun Ben-David January 5, 2015 at 2:25 am

    Hi Betsy et al,
    Thanks for your thoughtful responses, as always, and for the extra background on Stinging Fly. I hadn’t dug that deep into it.
    I don’t think Barrett has a novel out yet, or at least I didn’t see one. I only found the short story collection (Young Skins), which is already out in the UK but won’t officially be published in the US until March.
    I too read the title as referring to the ways the central characters cope (or don’t) with life after parents. I agree that the use of local idioms raises the possibility that “the ways” may have another meaning, but a) that seems unlikely given the simplicity of the phrase, b) the concern would seem to apply to most any title, and c) I’m okay with potentially missing a double meaning in the title … I’m sure I do that sometimes even with non-idiomatic titles.
    Best to all.

  6. lotusgreen January 7, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    I loved this dear story, for its color, it’s very rich language, and for the three-legged stool of a family. But what fascinated me the most was the rhythm; it was like reading a long long song-poem. It can’t have been an accident, but I’ve only come across such a thing once before which I’ll tell you about later.

    Like Danny Kaye in Walter Mitty, I kept hearing the “Pocketa-Pocketa-Pocketa…”

    The landline was mewling
    again in the kitchen,
    climb from the cozy rut
    to feel less alone.

    sweat from the boiler room
    daddy the year before.
    juvenile skewbald, gawped
    “You are no candidate,”

    faint as a watermark
    Pell walked the quarter mile
    the inside of kettles in
    need of descaling.

    an unthriving mustache
    He was the ringleader
    a shunt and a rattle as
    “Bit of a buzz on, and

    brimming with bin bags on
    in an old storage room
    chairs were too big for them
    sending him clattering

    “That’s how she always looks.”
    Gerry dismounted, hitched
    out in the desert dark.
    Mission objective

    ordered the murder of
    brutally sensible:
    perfectly edible
    “Being an idiot.”

    breath trailing visibly
    the daddy unwizened,
    the mammy unwigged

    I’ve surely missed many, or inadvertently forced some, but if this was an accident, the storyteller in Colin Barrett is so intuitive in his making his characters speak it’s almost spooky. The rhythm creates the family, creates the town, and allows the bane of grief to coexist with an unspoken optimism.

    Some of the language was just plain beautiful. There was snow in the back garden, a radiant pelt of the stuff with dark, snub-bodied birds dabbing across it. She lifted a foot from the lino, pressed dorsal and toes into the flannelled warmth of her standing calf.

    It was empty inside, welling with shadows. The yard light made the snow around the car unnaturally bright.

    And touching, this young fellow, not long ago orphaned, obsessed with a video game in which the “mission objective” was to stop your true and final adversary, the man who, in the game’s prologue, had ordered the murder of your family.

    And so much of it was crunchy, chewy, and leaking colors right and left, I feel I’ve passed time with, not read about, this family.

    The other time, I learned, was intentional. William Kotzwinkle, an old and longstanding favorite of mine, wrote a story about a Native American youth who rode a motorcycle. In his collection of stories, “Elephant Bangs Train,” the story appears; it’s called “Follow the Eagle.” I was reading it very late one night for about the fiftieth time, and yes, well, this was the 70s, I was stoned, and suddenly I began to realize that starting slowly then building so that at the end it was constant: the perfect rhythm of Hiawatha! And done in the same manner as Barrett has done here — invisibly. I wrote Kotzwinkle a letter and said I had found it. He responded. I was the only one who ever had.

    Lily

  7. Roger January 7, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    Lily, so well put. Great examples of the rich language and its rhythm.

  8. lotusgreen January 7, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    Thank you, Roger! I was also thrilled to read your, “This is the work of a master stylist. Every paragraph, sentence, and word is a treasure; the dialogue and the exposition just amazed me.” It was so gratifying to find that someone else had heard that treasure.

  9. lotusgreen January 8, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    I wrote Barrett. Not intentional at all, he says.

  10. Greg January 11, 2015 at 5:23 am

    It’s neat Lily how you wrote the author directly! And I really like this observation you made: “I feel I’ve passed time with, not read about, this family.”

    And thank you Roger, Majnun and Betsy for helping me fully understand the title!

  11. Madwomanintheattic January 22, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    It is rare for me to love characters in a New Yorker story. I loved these characters for (Barret’s gorgeous language of course) the support they offered one another; it left me hopeful that their paralysis would be only temporary (Nick’s is already wearing off) and that their good instincts for love and nurture would help them survive. Do you want to continue? Yes. I will not forget for a long time, “The daddy unwizened/the mammy unwigged.” Mourning portrait. Let me count The Ways.

  12. Ken February 11, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    I also thought this well-written and also wanted more. If this was the start of a novel, I’d want to keep reading. I agree, though, that as a short story it lacks a bit of incident plus it treads on familiar turf–the depressed alcoholic condition of the British/Irish working class.

  13. Jampi March 14, 2015 at 5:52 am

    My immediate reaction to the first paragraphs was that the descriptions seemed too much like ‘writing’, too blatant. However before long I was won over by the characters, their richness and complexity and the way their story was told.

    On the second reading, those same descriptions suddenly came to life. The first sentence is brilliant.

    That left me thinking – how did he achieve that balance between the characters voice and his own poetry with words without it being rejected by the reader?

  14. lotusgreen March 14, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Iambic pentameter.

  15. lotusgreen March 14, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Or is that Dactyl?

  16. Betsy Pelz March 14, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Nice to meet you, Jampi. What a great question. I guess we all will have our own distinctive response, Lily’s being to point us back to the rhythms of Barrett’s language, some of which may be iambic pentameter (two syllables to a set where the beat falls on the second syllable: da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA; “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt)) , but as she so brilliantly pointed out above, some of Barrett’s rhythms are in a rolling triple syllable arrangement (out in the desert dark – where the stress falls this way DA dada DA da DA). I’m with her on the idea that the rhythm of his language draws us in.

    But for me, the telling reason the reader does not reject the writer is his reserve regarding the characters’ possibilities. He gives us the thinnest threads of hope. Pell does make Gerry admit who started the fight. Nick does arrive home at midnight with groceries. Gerry does know he’s putting Pell and Nick through a wringer. It is this reserve about dire circumstances that seems to us credible, I think, even though we are dying for relief, for release from this prison.

    But – while Barrett has the wherewithal to make language sing, he resists putting it to sentimental use or resists putting a gloss on things. The Munellys are in a very bad way. He offers us very little relief, as if the situation simply demands it, as if the situation is deeply serious, which it is.

    No charm here. That’s the key. No malarkey.

  17. Jampi March 15, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Thanks for the welcome Betsy and the thoughtful comments, it’s given me something to mull over. And what a great website, just what I’ve been looking for. Keep up the good work!

  18. lotusgreen July 6, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    I just finished Colin Barrett’s new (to the US), and first. book, Young Skins, and I am destroyed at the same time that I am thrilled to find a writer of this magnitude. While it is almost unremittingly bleak, its truth, it’s masterful prose, pull you forward, compelling you to continue reading.

    Every man, and they’re mostly men, you meet, you care about, you wish him well and watch your wishes, in one way or another, dashed to the ground. Despite this, every act is unpredictable, no one is evil (one man’s adored young son is autistic, with a love for horses), all are, I suppose, victims of a hopeless Ireland, but each in his own individualistic way.

    I should go through and extract bits of the extraordinary prose, but honestly, I would have to include the whole book. I can’t tear off a chunk like brown bread and offer it to you because it’s too tightly woven; little stands alone. There’s not an extra word.

    What I will do, though, is include a paragraph found and chosen at complete random just for the example of the language therein, and the mind and the tongue of the maker, as he recreates language:

    “It’s her,” I said.

    “Of course it is,” said Mateen.

    He said that and I thought I saw a flame, a flicker, but it was only her hair, high on her high head. Sarah Dignan was unnervingly tall for a girl, taller than me, clearing even Mateen who was six two. She was blond, pale, unquestionably captivating in the face. Her beauty was anomalous, sprung as she was from an utterly mundane genetic lineage. Certainly there was no foresign, no presage of her beauty of her height, in her family, in her hair-covered pudding of a father and squat, rook-faced mother, nor in her older siblings. She was the youngest and only girl. Three older Dignan boys existed–broad, blunt and ugly. Temperamentwise, she was different too; the Dignan clan was country affable, ready to talk benign bullshit at the drop of a hat.Sarah was frosty, unpredictable, spoiled by the fact that attention never glossed over her; even when she tried to be reticent, she remained a relentless point of contention.

    Given the incongruity in semblance and substance, theories concerning the Dignan girl’s true origins and nature had regularly bubbled forth. Talk was Sarah was a foundling from Gypsy stock or an orphan from Chernobyl. That during her birth her umbilical cord tangled round her neck, asphyxiating and rendering her brain dead for five minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, but that she had inexplicably come back. That she suffered from Asperger;s or ADHD or was bipolar. That she was either, by the textbook definitions, a moron, or possessed a genius-level IQ. That she had gone through puberty at six, hence her inordinate height.

    Indeed.

  19. Betsy July 6, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Lily – thank you so much for this wonderful tribute to Colin Barrett. He deserves the care and thought you have afforded him. Ours as well, I think.

  20. Trevor Berrett July 6, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    Yes, thank you so much for the wonderful in-depth comment on Barrett’s book. I’m thrilled you enjoyed it so much and came back to tell us.

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