Majnun Ben-David

New Yorker Note: The Ways

Among new short stories, those published each week in The New Yorker likely have the largest readership. My idea is to post a few thoughts on each New Yorker story as they are published. We’ll see if this idea solidifies into a weekly habit or dissipates into an “I-used-to.”

This week’s story is “
The Ways” by Colin Barrett, a relatively new Irish author whose first book “Young Skins” (a collection of short stories, natch) won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The book is available from The Stinging Fly Press in Ireland and will be published in the US this coming March.

“The Ways” tells the story of one day in the life of the three Munnelly siblings, Pell (16), Gerry (no age given, but younger, maybe 13 or so?), and Nick (25). Cancer claimed their father three years ago, then their mother two years ago, so now Nick is the legal guardian of Pell and Gerry. They live outside an unnamed town in Ireland, and the setting is more-or-less the present (they have cell phones and video games).

On the surface, not much happens. Gerry has gotten into a fight at school, so Pell takes the bus in to town to collect him. Then they visit Nick at the hotel where he works as a cook, and Nick gives them a ride back home. The story ends that evening with the three siblings in the house. The story is told in the third person, but the viewpoint moves between each sibling in turn. We begin with Pell’s perspective, then switch to Nick’s, and finally to Gerry’s.

This story is pretty clearly about the different ways (thus the title) the death of their parents has affected each sibling. Nick, the oldest, throws himself into his work, shouldering the responsibilities for the family but also, perhaps, distancing himself from his siblings by doing so. “Nick lived here in as small a way as he could. He was gone by first light and did not come back until near midnight.” Gerry, the youngest, leans more toward anger, both in his schoolyard brawls and in his video game of choice, in which the protagonist takes violent revenge on characters who killed his family (note the obvious parallel with Gerry’s real-life situation). Pell’s reaction is harder to characterize, which is perhaps fitting for a 16-year-old girl, except that she has quietly but firmly stopped attending school.

Barrett avoids cliche in his rendering of siblings who have lost their parents, and that is much to his credit. Furthermore, all three characters are well-drawn and distinct. Barrett portrays the thoughts of a 16-year-old girl, as well as those of a younger boy, in ways that struck me as plausible, but without resorting to obvious tics.

And yet I wanted more. A single day, without much happening, wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to spend more time with the intriguing personalities of Nick, Pell, and Gerry, to learn more about how they handle their difficult situation and see what becomes of them. So I mean this as a mix of compliment (I came to care about these characters) and criticism (more could be done here). As it stands, what we have is closer to a character sketch than a traditional story -- the characters seem about the same when the story closes as they were when it started. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

The main thing that “happened” to these characters was the loss of their parents, but this occurred well before the story began. As Barrett explains in a brief question-and-answer about this story (
here), “I was fundamentally only interested in effects, not cause.” And indeed, we mostly see how each of the three siblings grapples with the loss, and we don’t really know how things were while their parents were still alive (a wise choice for this story, I think).

Along the way there are small moments of humor. For example, Pell’s reaction to spotting a horse while trying to figure out how to get to town to retrieve Gerry - “You are no candidate.” Barrett also has a knack for apt/amusing descriptions: “the scanty lichen of an unthriving mustache clinging to his lip.” The setting is painted effectively and economically. The connections between most of the people who pass through the story are made clear, showing how lives in this town are enmeshed with each other, and yet this is not overstated.

This story does not seem to be from Barrett’s “Young Skins” collection, though I might be wrong about that (I’m just going by the titles). If it is indeed a new story, perhaps Barrett will expand on it, or revisit these characters. I, at least, would love to hear more about Nick, Pell, and Gerry.

For another perspective on Barrett’s story, the excellent website “
The Mookse and The Gripes” has a review of it here by the excellent Betsy Pelz. I wrote the above before I read her review though.

Finally, I would note that this is the second New Yorker story in the past few months from a relatively new Irish author whose first collection is (or will be) published by The Stinging Fly Press in Dublin -- Danielle McLaughlin’s “
The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” ran in the September 15th issue. For a compendium of my favorite phrases from McLaughlin’s work, see here.

Disclaimer: The above is my initial reaction to the story, written without revision. “New Yorker Notes” are meant to be timely notes, rather than deep analyses.
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