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NEW YORKER Stories

Kevin Barry

"Fjord of Killary"

February 1, 2010

I'm afraid that I'm by nature a rather unsympathetic reader of stories like this one.

A middle-aged narrator — a poet from the city, a would-be aid-worker in Cambodia, and the proprietor of a seventeenth-century public house in the West of Ireland — tells us about the flooding of the town during a storm in the night. More or less marooned, he and his customers take refuge in the upstairs function room, where the mood lighting and the landlord's choice of golden oldies revive the spirit of 1979. A great time is had by all. The water eventually subsides, but not without bathing the narrator in epiphany.

And the view was suddenly clear to me. The world opened out to its grim beyonds and I realized that, at forty, one must learn the rigors of acceptance. Capitalize it: Acceptance. I needed to accept what was put before me — be it a watery grave in Ireland's only natural fjord, or a return to the city and its grayer intensities, or a wordless exile in some steaming Cambodian swamp hole, or poems or no poems, or children or not, lovers or not, illness or otherwise, success or its absence. I would accept all that was put in my way, from here on through until I breathed my last.

This is pleasant to read, because, until now, the narrator's spirit has been tired.

I had made — despite it all — a mild success of myself in life. But on turning forty, the previous year, I had sensed exhaustion rising up in me, like rot. Before forty, you think that exhaustion is something like a long-lasting hangover. But at forty you learn all about it. Even your passions exhaust you. I found that to be alone with the work all day was increasingly difficult. And the city had become a jag on my nerves — there was too much young flesh around.

Eight months later, having succumbed to the dream of finding refreshment (and distraction) in running a pub, the narrator fears that it will be the death of him. As the floodwaters rise, however, he begins to feel the opposite.

I felt suddenly that I was growing into the mine-host role. There was a conviviality in the bar, the type that is said to come always with threatened disaster.

Disaster does not bring out my convivial side. When the power goes out, I do not believe in acceptance; I become implacable and inconsolable until the foundations of modern life are restored. I have nothing but contempt for people who can "be here now" in the middle of catastrophe: they have lobotomized themselves in the interest of feeling all right.

So I am not going to say more than a word or two of judgment about Mr Barry's story. It is well-paced and well-written. The blend of cosmopolitan exposition and Irish dialect is not disagreeable, even if the latter seems a bit over-indulged; doubtless I'd have gotten more out of the story had I been able to appreciate the pithy wisdom of the locals. The presence of a crew of hot young Belarusians on the scene threatens to tip the story into clich้, and a passing boatful of placid sheep risks the shallows of symbolic currents. If you come across a sympathetic appreciation of this story, kindly let me know, that I may perhaps learn to see a little better than I do.

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