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The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry: A vaudeville masterpiece, gaudy, ragged and irrepressible

At its best, the story careers along like a Coen brothers film; in weaker moments Tarantino bulls in

The Heart in Winter
Author: Kevin Barry
ISBN-13: 978-1805302117
Publisher: Canongate
Guideline Price: £16.99

The Heart in Winter is Kevin Barry’s latest novel, set in the western United States at the end of the 19th century. It begins in Butte, Montana, and ends in San Francisco, California, the distance between the two a violent traverse of language and emotion.

All of Barry’s books are dramas of circumstance, and The Heart in Winter is no different, tracing the love struck affair of Tom Rourke, troubadour and misfit, and Polly Gillespie, a survivor in flight from some hidden history back east. Barry is a master of loose talk and wild ideas, which together propel his characters through the unfinished state of the American west, a place of the dispossessed and dreaming, which is not unlike the west of Ireland in Barry’s earlier work.

The two places have a certain synchronicity in his imagination, as has been the case since Barry’s first novel, City of Bohane. That was a story too of love, fate and violence, which The Heart in Winter strips down and remakes into a little epic of escape and survival. In so doing, Barry has written a vaudeville masterpiece, gaudy, ragged and irrepressible.

Butte was founded by the wealth extracted from the copper mines that drew thousands of Irish immigrants to the Rocky Mountains, in large part thanks to the efforts of the Cavan-born Marcus Daly, master of the Anaconda mine. Suitably, Barry’s novel has all the rowdy energy of a frontier town built from the mud up with whatever is to hand. His Butte is a night town of quick and squandered wealth, illiteracy and the friction of the cultural bonds that tie diasporas together.

Behind the bluster, Barry has always been concerned with questions of intimacy, and how his characters relate to each other. In Beatlebone he took it so far as to invite the reader into his own memories, even as he brought John Lennon to manic life in Barry’s first transatlantic prose trip, to Lennon’s New York. In The Heart in Winter, Tom Rourke haunts Butte in an opium haze, a beatnik before his time. He is an artist of a kind, writing letters from miners to Irish immigrants on the east coast with the promise of marriage. Barry draws the awkwardness of these exchanges out beautifully, the difficulty of looking at yourself clearly, and the capacity to describe what you see, the problem of the miner and the novelist alike.

There is no one in contemporary Irish literature whose characters swear like Barry’s, curse words like notes from a fiddle, carrying over the mayhem of bars and fights

Barry’s sympathies are by turns comic and scarifying, the balance between which sets the novel’s tone at large. The few moments where the book falters are when the narrator’s gaze is too direct on the subject, as it can be on some of the female forms. Rourke’s own occupation, if it is that, is assistant to a photographer, in whose studio he meets Polly, who has arrived in town to marry Anthony Harrington, one of the mine supervisors. There begins the manic journey that takes the couple westerly from Butte, through country drawn by danger.

Barry has always had a gift for writing about hard weather, rain and wind, and the wintry aspects of the mountain country come to life as his thran lovers try to outrun their fates. There are moments of peace, which admit a tenderness to the narrative that otherwise subsists in the kindness of strangers to the feckless. At its best, the story careers along like a Coen brothers film; in weaker moments Tarantino bulls in, the language and setting just occasionally overdone. Still, there is no one in contemporary Irish literature whose characters swear like Barry’s, curse words like notes from a fiddle, carrying over the mayhem of bars and fights.

The Heart in Winter is an Irish novel of America that sees the far continent through America’s tangled cultures. The novel is observed by mutely huddled figures of the Nez Percé even as it slams whiskey with stunned new arrivals, who are themselves lost colonists of a kind. There is little thread between this fragmentary, violent past of American expansion west and a contemporary sense of Irish America. The Heart in Winter is instead a continuation of Barry’s exploration of the wild out west, which by now has ranged from Cork to Limerick, Westport, and over the water beyond.

Tom Rourke too is a fellow traveller of Beatlebone’s Cornelius O’Grady, another man given to riffs and premonitions. But Polly Gillespie is different and, unlike many of Barry’s characters, given to reserve. Her worn quietude is the novel’s steady centre and the sign of what Barry’s scouring prose sometimes hides, which is the emotional range of his stories and his care for quiet in the chaos. For all its palpitations, The Heart in Winter has a persistent rhythm that is sign of a style to come, no matter how bitter the weather.

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