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New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Ways," by Colin Barrett

Issue: Jan. 5, 2015

Story: "The Ways"

Author: Colin Barrett

Rating: $$

Review: Set in present day Ireland in a small, rural town, Colin Barrett's "The Ways" is a sort of "day-in-the-life" glimpse into the Munnelly family; a unit of three siblings -- Nick, Pell, and Gerry -- whose parents have died of cancer in quick succession a few years before. The family is poor, as might be expected of a parentless family whose breadwinner is the oldest sibling, who works in a restaurant, and -- though none of the members are emotionally mature enough to recognize it -- fraying at the seams. Each is sinking, or rather cocooning themselves, into their own burrow of depression and repressed emotion. Nick works constantly. Pell, who has quit school, is becoming an alcoholic. Gerry holes up in his room and plays video games for hours and hours on end. Left without parents, the Munnelly's are surviving in a material sense -- and one gets the impression they will never be destitute -- but their emotional lives are so undernourished they barely recognize each other any more.

One of the most immediately attractive aspects of "The Ways" is Barrett's use of textural detail. While not exactly a "travel story" (Ireland isn't India, after all), Barrett makes it feel that way somehow as he lifts the curtain on the Munnelley family's daily life. It is a world not so distant or incomprehensible to any white, middle-class reader from an Anglophone country; however, Barrett so closely decorates this world with detail that we do, in fact, feel like interlopers into a private and very foreign world. We feel Gerry's lip throbbing hours after he's been in a fight; we wince as Nick plucks lint from his arm hairs as his smokes a cigarette in the cold alleyway outside his restaurant; we avert our eyes in shame as Pell nurses her water glass full of vodka. Barrett is so deft at showing us this kind of personal, private detail, that the Munnelly's almost seem like aliens, but they're not; they are human. They are our less advantaged neighbors, they are our black-sheep cousins, they are us.

Another very subtle but extremely effective trick Barrett uses is to narrate the story in dialect. The hotel where Nick works is "dying on its hole." The boys Pell encounters on the bus are "on the doss" from school. While there's nothing unique about a writer writing in his own dialect, mind you, when Barrett does it he somehow conveys the impression that the narrator -- from the rotating perspective of each sibling at various times through the story -- is himself a close participant in this world, or has been at one time. Maybe he's a friend or a neighbor or one of the Munnelly parents looking down from above. In fact, as the author, he's the god that created the Munnelly's from his own flesh, and his use of the same vernacular as the characters is a clever way of taking ownership of the characters.

"The Ways" takes place over the course of about 12 hours in the lives of the Munnelly's, maybe less, and yet the story conveys so much about the family's past, present, and future, without going into hardly any detail about the the former. Given the close snapshot Barrett gives us of one day in their lives, we can almost reconstruct their lives over the past five years, their parents' illnesses, enfeeblement, and finally death, and how the siblings have now arrived at this point. And while the future, obviously, could go in a number of different directions, not one of them looks bright or without serious and imminent stumbling blocks.

Given the nature of "The Ways," a snapshot without a proper beginning and end, and in which the character's don't really seem to change, and in which nothing "happens" per se to call any of the characters to new emotional growth or decline, it's hard for me to call this a masterful piece of writing. It was, in fact, a teensy bit of a slog at times before I got invested into the characters, and that period lasted for a bit longer than it should have; however, I see something very promising in Barrett's work, some deep, underground rivers of emotion that feed the surface details of his story. He is a writer who recognizes the "iceberg" theory of writing and uses it. I see shades of an Irish Chris Offutt here in Barrett's attempts to excavate the complex emotional lives of people who do not emote because they don't have the language or because their culture's will not permit it. Or, in the case of "The Ways," young people in the process of making themselves as hard as their circumstances in order to cope, because they know no other way.


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