Kevin Barry: “Ox Mountain Death Song”

11/11/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, 10/29/12 & 11/5/12

A romantic, dialect-driven dirge (according to the title, at least), but I’d say the problem is that it inspires absolutely none of which it speaks of. The notes are there, but flat, and the violent sexual energies that define this greater-than Good and Evil conflict between the reckless Canavan boys and the lawful Browns are implied more than implicit; they’re never truly felt.

So, up on the Sligo-Mayo border, the Ox Mountains, and apparently during the 70s (“the hormone maelstrom of the country discos”), the latest Canavan brute has been “planting babies” all over, what with his “ferret grin” and the way he “smirked, sexily” and emphasized the “witch” of those hazel eyes. But these are archetypal characters: “You’re nothin’ only a fucken knacker off the Ox!” yells the cop at the convict; he replies: “And you’re nothin’ only a fucken swing-key.” Motivations fall to the wayside, and in a story this short, the echoes are more obvious than eerie, with us cutting quickly to their final conflict. You see, the 29-year-old Canavan has been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, and the foreboding fears of the officer that he “would at some future point kill” have shifted to “Canavan could do anything now.”
And yet, for all the superstitious country lore thrown into these descriptive passages, the longing of the hills and supposed magic of this conflict (apparently a Canavan can smell the “tang of policeman . . . it had an aniseed note”), Canavan doesn’t exactly do anything. Sure, he sleeps around a lot: “He kept several on the string at any given time but as soon as they got weight on them he left them.” And yes, the fifty-year-old widow he’s been sleeping with is a mess (a mess who, it’s worth noting, stil defends Canavan and is loathe to give him up), but if it’s true that “a killing is imminent,” no motivation or proof is ever shown.

Instead, it’s the officer — driven mad, perhaps, by the freedom he sees in the Canavan boys that he is by nature drawn to despise — who murders Canavan, pushing him off a cliff. It’s meant to be abrupt, even though the killing is described by this point almost as if it’s a tangible character itself (“A killing will name its time and it had named it for now”), and yet the suddenness and unexplained mystery/lore of so much of this story doesn’t work to deliver any sort of impact. For instance, just before the murder: “The handsome eyes burned into the Sergeant as he rose and Tom Brown wanted to belt him and he wanted to kiss him.” Ahem: what?!

We spend no further time with the Sergeant, do not analyze his actions, his character, or that odd little outburst. Instead, Barry jumps back into the poetics of the land, describing the “sly and sweetfound darkness” of a summer night and explaining away the violences of the land as simply another part of them. I buy mystery, I buy the unknown. But I don’t embrace it, and certainly don’t need to read an ode to those dark forces. And I certainly don’t see how Barry reaches his conclusion, in which he describes it all as “the falling-in-love-all-over-again.” Ah, well. Perhaps this is a cultural thing?

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