April 4: “Stand Your Skin” by Colin Barrett

Now that AWP Week is in the books at Story366, it’s time to move on to a new project, one I’m sensibly naming “Books I Got at AWP Week.” During this week, I will—get ready for it—review books that I bought, stole, found, was given this past week at AWP. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t get all that many this year—these reasons include already having to hump a lot of Moon City books back in my suitcase and not spending a lot of time in the book fair. That’s kind of sad, because if there was a year for me to search out books, it would have been this year, the year I want obscure (to me) titles. Still, adding to Christopher Shipman’s entry from the other day, I’ll be covering the ones I did manage to pick up, those lucky contestants who were chosen by me to play the Grand Prize Game.

Keeping up with Story366 logic, I tried to pick a variety of books, from a variety of presses, big and small. Along with new (to me) authors, I tried to find books by writers I knew, including books I specifically knew about and wanted to buy, maybe even have signed. That part didn’t work out so well, as I was certainly never organized enough to look at the signings list in the program, which wouldn’t have been all that hard. In the end, I came up with a nice stack of books, the first of which I found at the Grove Atlantic table, today’s subject, Young Skins by Collin Barrett. The Grove Atlantic rep couldn’t stop raving about it, so I was more than happy to give a go to a book I’d never heard of by an author I hadn’t heard of, either (though that’s on me, as he and his book are pretty famous).

Barrett published Young Skins in Ireland in 2011 and won the Frank O’Connor Award the next year. The book hit America in 2014. The stories that I read are both set in Ireland, mainly in bars, and involve characters who are recovering from tragic incidents. The last story in the book, “Kindly Forget My Existence,” is about two old bandmates coming together, at a bar, before a funeral for their ex-lead singer, who has committed suicide. Both had affairs with her while on the road—alternating nights at one point—but neither has the guts to face the church, her family, the event. Great story, and I kind of wish their band was real, as I’d buy their record, based on Barrett’s descriptions. The story I’m writing about, “Stand Your Skin,” seems to take place in the same universe (i.e., Ireland), but is about slightly different people, doing slightly different things.

“Stand Your Skin” tells the story of Bat, an Irish kid living with him mom and working a minimum-wage retail job he has no big investment in. He and his coworkers bond by deriding their job, their boss, and sneaking a joint out back during a break; hey, that’s exactly like what happens at such places here in America. One of his coworkers, Heg, is eighteen and working his summer while home from college, and the other, Tain, is a fourteen-year-old girl who recently had a fling with Heg; Bat has looked it up and knows it’s statutory rape, not that anyone in their lives seems to care. Bat rides his scooter around town, comes home to his mother cutting neighborhood kids’ hair, and drinks a six pack on his roof every night, which leaves him unable to get to work on time the next day (not that it matters). Bat doesn’t have a plan for the future, but he’s okay with that.

Bat also has sustained a horrible injury, and early in the story, we just know that he took a boot to the face that broke his jaw, required surgery, and has left his face permanently catty-wompus. Barrett withholds the details until later, which creates some suspense, makes the structure of the plot more complex and interesting.

The story shifts gears a bit at a going-away party for Heg, a gathering at a local bar the Friday before he heads back to Dublin for his junior year of computer science studies. Bat shows up and starts to drink, runs into people from the neighborhood, shoots the shit. Tain shows up, too, looking advanced, her hair and make-up done, her skirt short, and her blouse sporting a window that reveals some unbeknownst cleavage. Bat is stricken by her—it’s apparent he’s always had his eye on her—but so is an old neighborhood bloke by the name of Minion. Minion has known Bat all their lives, who even used to bully him but doesn’t any more, not since Bat took the boot to the face. They drink together, ask about each other’s families, and both ogle Tain, who is heartbroken to have arrived at the party with a personal gift for Heg, who has in turn brought his college girlfriend to the party, a girl—a woman—his own age he’ll be in Dublin with the next nine months.

Then Barrett really changes things up. He has Bat leave the story for a bit, sending him to the bathroom, switching point of view (which happens again for the last act, to another character). That’s when we get the story of Bat’s attack, told by Minion to Tain at the bar, his hand inching up her thigh. Apparently, Bat was just in the wrong place at the wrong time—Minion had been in the bar when it happened. A local hooligan—the hooligan amongst hooligans—was drunk and on a lark, bragging he’d take the head off the first person (Barrett doesn’t say “person”) through the door. In comes Bat, boot goes flying, jaw goes dislocated. Despite the fact everyone’s given him shit his entire life, everyone wants to stand behind, tear this guy’s head off. Bat declines, and this becomes his characterizing trait. Whether it’s the boot to the jaw, every man advancing on Tain, or life in general: Sit back and let it happen.

Colin Barrett fills his world with such characters, sad sacks, ne’er-do-wells, hard drinkers, and broken dreamers, all of them static, frozen by their circumstances, physically and mentally. These people drink hard, tout their family names at the start of every conversation, and speak in a wonderfully fresh and compelling lilt, filled with anachronisms and swagger. To note, Barrett pulls off that POV-switch trick in both stories I read, and I wonder if that’s a device that Irish or even European authors just do, or is this something that’s peculiar to Barrett. All in all, I really loved the stories in Young Skins and am so glad I ran into the Grove Atlantic table, that their hawker of wares saw me coming down their aisle.