"Ox Mountain Death Song" by Kevin Barry Originally published in the October 29 & November 5, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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.