"Deer Season"
by Kevin Barry
Originally published in the October 10, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

october-10-2016Before “Deer Season,” Kevin Barry had published two stories in The New Yorker: “Fjord of Killary” and “Ox Mountain Death Song” (posts here and here, respectively). Strangely, while I didn’t like “Fjord of Killary” at the time I wrote my post on the story, it’s a piece I remember almost as well as any other in the magazine over the past decade, and I have grown quite fond of it. I was also a big fan of “Ox Mountain Death Song,” and I remember it well, too.

And so, on to “Deer Season,” and I hope to many others over the coming years. Please let me know your thoughts below. I’ll share mine there too when I’ve finished the story . . . please oh please oh please be a good story.

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By |2016-10-03T11:45:36-04:00October 3rd, 2016|Categories: Kevin Barry, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Roger October 3, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    I thought this story succeeded by virtue of its style. Such powerful rhythm in its sentences, especially in the closing paragraph. I enjoyed it, but I admired it more.

  2. Avataram October 3, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    Agree with Roger. Wonderful story, so well written, reminded me of John Galsworthy’s “The Apple Tree”. Possibly a 2016 homage to that story written in 1916?

  3. David October 5, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    On my first reading of the story I was mostly bored. So I put it aside for a day then read it again, but that didn’t help. There is nothing special about the characters and the plot is very slight and a bit silly. By the author’s own admission most of the story is given in the first paragraph. I would be interested to hear what female readers think, but it also sounds a lot more like a man’s view of girl’s thoughts about sex than an actual girl’s idea. But even if it is believable, it’s rather unremarkable.

    The author explains in the interview that the fact that the man is English makes him seem more exotic to the girl. If this is so it only says something about how narrow a worldview people in Ireland have. Besides, the girl already chose him for her experimental fuck before she knew he was English. She also chose him before she knew he was poor, so the author’s claim that class is being explored here rings hollow as well. Other than noting his poverty not much of significance is derived from his class. I also don’t know what to make of his claim that he burned books for heat. It is not a line that can be taken seriously, but the point of it as a joke (if it is one) is missing.

    That brings us to the expressive language he uses in his writing. To me it all felt overstuffed and absurd because such a banal plot does not seem to be the kind of thing that would inspire or support such elevated prose. Barry does not seem to have ever met a metaphor or a simile that he didn’t like, and he tries to use them all here. On my first reading I actually found that my favourite character was the grasses. Halfway through I wondered what we might learn about them next. We are told “the high grasses raced in the late-summer fields”, “the tall grasses that moved in the breeze had faded to a whitish gold”, “the breeze among the grasses [distracted] them from each other, and they both looked out and across the moving grasses”, and “sentimental grasses wavered in a lighter breeze.” I hope the grasses had a happier ending than the girl and man did.

    In the interview Barry tells us that since the plot is mostly presented in one paragraph that just left him free to “concentrate on the characters, the sentences, the huge, queasy emotions of the piece”. What results is the sort of thing others might describe as “self-indulgent” writing, but I would call trying too hard to be a show-off. Cutting the imagery in half and having more than a paragraph of pedestrian plot would have made this story more interesting to read.

  4. Dan October 5, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    I agree with Roger and Avatararn: an excellent story. It reminds me of several stories in Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island. Barry seems to excel at portraying both intentional and unintentional casual cruelties as well as especially vulnerable younger men and women. “A Cruelty,” in Dark Lies the Island, is about an obsessive young man, and it’s uncomfortably sad and uncomfortably memorable.

  5. Melinda October 5, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    For me, this story was all about tone and Barry’s use of language. Course, forceful dialogue contrasts with lyrical, descriptive passages illustrating Ireland’s rural countryside. Such a striking contrast also drives the relationship between the young, unnamed female protagonist and the riverman.
    With her eighteenth birthday days away, the protagonist is determined to lose her virginity before summer’s end and her journey back to the confines of boarding school. As for partner, she has no emotional preference; her desire is strictly for the experience and the story she’ll tell, exaggerating the details, to gain prestige among her friends. She is strong-willed. The riverman is easy prey. She stalks and sexually pursues him, which is sort of a gender twist with regard to sexual crimes. He is older than the protagonist and mentally, financially and socially inferior to her. He lives alone, away from town, and is, no doubt, lonely and sexually deprived. She can easily arouse him. But because she’s underage when they have sex, their encounter can be considered a criminal act.
    The protagonist uses the riverman incident to reject her family’s dominance over her. Since her mother died when she was younger, her father has almost ultimate power over her decision-making. Her brother is older and already partway through medical school. The girl fails to use any protection from pregnancy and shows no respect for her family’s wishes or social position. She sacrifices the riverman, his livelihood and home, to declare her own power, her independence from society and family.
    Yes, I do believe that in some ways a teenage, American female will behave as this girl did. I think it’s a way of gaining independence from mom and dad. It’s a time in life when many people will, no doubt, be hurt by the child’s rebellious phase. But it’s a necessary conflict for all family members to grow.
    The cruel aspect of this story’s protagonist was that she stalked “weaker” prey. We’ve read many stories in which the “bad” boy is pursued by the young, rebellious teen, but he’s typically not considered “astray in the head… You know he’s been in and out of the hospital.” In this story, the man was somewhat “innocent”; he was, to a certain extent, victimized by the girl.

  6. David October 5, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Melinda, thanks for your detailed comments. I should probably give the story another chance. You’ve given me a few things to think about anyway.

  7. Tom October 5, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    I totally agree with what David wrote above. Still, I am eager to see if David is going to find some real thing in this story, on his second reading!

  8. William October 6, 2016 at 10:50 pm

    Melinda —

    Thanks to you for that sensitive commentary. It showed me some things I had missed. To your discernment of the girl’s seeking of her personal power, I want to add this: in the last paragraph, where she feels her power most clearly, I sense that she is made sad by it. She walks in “widowly despair”. Also, she “felt many years older” as she left the bungalow and went home. Perhaps the assumption of power implies the loss of innocence and the emergence of a darker personality, which she is innately aware of.

    I will also belabor the obvious by noting the title. the girl stalks the man as prey just as her father and her brother stalk deer and kill them. She stalks and figuratively “kills” the Riverman. Difference — her father enjoys killing deer, while she feels something sad — regret? remorse? — from her treatment of the Riverman.

    When she is in the bungalow at the end, and she hears the young deer, is that herself?

    As for descriptive language, I always feel ambivalent about it. It is so obvious and deliberate. Does that make it beautiful and sensitive? or forced? We each have to answer that for ourselves. I’m reading one of Peter May’s Lewis novels now and he integrates environmental description into the mood of the story. Easier to do with a longer work.

    A suggestion: I’ve just read Adam Johnson’s collection of stories, “Fortune Smiles”. I recommend it as a genre different from all of the New Yorker stories we’ve discussed. Johnson will never be published in the NY, his stories are average 50 pages long. But they flow very well. I liked 4 of the 6 in the collection.

  9. Eric October 7, 2016 at 5:00 am

    I thought the second half of this story was excellent, more than compensating for the somewhat meandering first half. The author’s descriptive asides do seem rather pointless at the beginning. Eventually, though, they focus in on what seems to be the central theme; how class differences can turn a man’s otherwise harmless, inconsequential (for him, anyway) indiscretion into a disaster. For many/most thirtysomething single men, an encounter like this would hardly be considered a victimization; if the man has a bit of money or standing, there are many ways to minimize the consequences of this kind of reckless act.

    But for this particular man it is in fact a victimization, because of the gradually revealed class differences. As an already marginal, even scorned, member of the community, there’s nothing he can do to make the problem go away. One knock on the door, a brief conversation, and he’s gone.

    In my opinion descriptive asides usually only work in a short story if they serve to reinforce the main themes, and here in the second half at least they do so very well, even brilliantly. I also liked how the author portrayed the girl’s conflicted responses in the aftermath; regret at the consequences for a man she had unexpected feelings for, mixed with a somewhat exhilirating feeling of empowerment from having asserted herself. The story could have been better, but overall I found it quite satisfying.

  10. David October 7, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Tom, sadly, it didn’t help. If anything, I like the story less now. Oh well. I’m ready to move on to next week’s story.

  11. Melinda October 7, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    William, I very much enjoyed your take on the ending, that “she feels her power most clearly, I sense that she is made sad… which she is innately aware of.”
    However, for me, I’m not sure the girl feels completely saddened by what she’d done to the man. I think this story is riddled with conflict and contrasting characteristics. The protagonist’s reaction was more her conflict and awe at the power she’d invoked through the incident. Here’s why:
    She’s manipulative; she plots her “attack” in her mind before she puts it into physical action, and it includes the riverman’s annihilation. “She arranged the picture in her mind. She felt that she could see what was coming and that she could make events turn to her design. She felt a quick thrum of new sexual power.” And then “She walked now beneath a cloak of widowly despair. She had arranged the picture for this scene, too. She came on his bungalow in full darkness.”
    I believe the girl well knows what her “hunt” will result in as far as her connection with the riverman. I think her sadness comes from her passing from child to adult and the distance she now feels with regard to family and her past—her “cloak of widowly despair.”
    Look back at this: “The lurch of fright in her voice was a sickening thing and she fled the room in disgust at it. The fright betrayed a weight of feeling that was a surprise to her. She had carried it without knowing. Though she knew well enough that it was the idea of him rather than the fact—the idea of a long, thin, sombre man, in a soak of noble depression, smelling of lentils, in a damp pebble-dash bungalow, amid a scrabble of the whitethorn trees, a man ragged in the province of Connaught and alone at all seasons, perhaps already betrothed to a glamorous early death, and under some especially mischievous arrayment of the stars he was all that a girl could ask for.” This takes place when the protagonist’s father points out to her how damaging her actions have been toward the riverman. I’m not sure how much regret she feels about his demise. I think she feels a more general kind of sadness, but above all she’s more tuned into a “survival of the fittest” belief. In the end, I believe, she leaves the cabin for home feeling both ends of the conflict at once—raw, natural power.
    When the father and brother deer hunt, the father doesn’t kill a deer, only the brother—the doctor. There’s that conflict again: killer vs. healer. No, no regret or remorse, rejoice! He got him a buck, a male.
    I feel your pain as for the forced prose. I get his point; still, it’s a bit hard on the inner ears.
    I’ve been too long-winded. I’m going to shut up and go look for Adam Johnson’s collection, “Fortune Smiles.” Thanks for that suggestion.

  12. Paul October 8, 2016 at 5:17 am

    I totally agree with David’s comments. I don’t see the point of all that scene-setting. Also, I have questions about the editing. Clearly, it’s essential to realise that the story is set in Ireland. But can the readership be expected to know that? I only knew that by googling “Ox mountains”. Also, “She had taken a book for cover, after a long think about which book exactly to take.” Why “exactly”? Surely, the editor could have improved this prose by simply omitting “exactly” leading to “She had taken a book for cover, after a long think about which book to take.”

    Paul Epstein

  13. Sean H October 9, 2016 at 9:59 pm

    A well-written and immersive piece. Barry is certainly a skilled short story writer and the piece reads briskly, has a wonderful economy to it, and lingers in the mind. The characters invert cliches and there’s a real sorrow to it (it even reminded of the song “Sorrow” by The National). Here we have a sad man, an outsider and loner, an outcast, but he is rendered with great humanity. The girl realizes she’s been selfish and ends the story with a grownup’s weighty regret, the harshness of adulthood dawning on her as terrifyingly and tragically as in the novels by Bolano and Goethe that Barry astutely weaves into his story. This is in many ways a piece of literature about the death of childhood and the death of innocence. The viriginity she loses sexually is almost meaningless but the greater virginity and innocence she loses is quite moving. And as noted in some of the comments above, the predator/prey motif running through the piece is very effective. Even in a more timeless and less urban part of the world, the oldest form of “social media,” eavesdropping + gossip, proves a most vicious and vindictive foe. The contrast between the lyrical prose and the hardscrabble dialogue makes for a wonderful melange. The sex scene (and boy are sex scenes hard to write in a way that is even remotely original) was almost perfect – “A little boy’s remorse filled up his eyes” and “Is that about the size of it?” and “There was nowhere left for them to go but into their own breathing flesh again, now that they were so quickly separated” are just real gems. I agree that the prose is not uniformly brilliant and that maybe at times the pathos rushes in a bit too quickly, but overall I’d go as high as an 8 or 9 out of 10 for this piece.

  14. Ken October 19, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    The conversation above really illuminates the story. I weigh in on the positive side. I do understand the feeling that some of the descriptions of light/nature are a bit over-done (something I complained about recently with a Tessa Hadley story which is austere by comparison to this) but to me, in this instance, they worked on the level of poetry. This was a story to read out loud. And…the wonderful ambivalence of a character at once feeling regret and triumph is well-handled and never heavy-handed or obvious. I think that one could even miss the significance of the story’s ideas and only see a fairly time-worn tale because of the fact that Barry has a light touch when delivering meaning and ideas.

  15. Greg October 20, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    David – I liked how you described the over-description of the grasses in the story. Do you see this as a nod perhaps to Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder”?

    William – Thank you for expanding on the title and the role of the deer near the end….I think it was her…..

    Melinda – I loved your extended posts on the motivations of the girl. I have read them three times….you have opened up so much for me!

    Sean – Your review touched on so many key aspects! And your emotional link to The National’s “Sorrow” is very apt.

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