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.
“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.