I find that Young Skins, rather than detailing the life of the young now, detailed the lives of any young person who ever lived in any small town from the 1950s onwards. Colin Barrett is a good writer; he can keep the story moving at a good rate and his prose is localised but universal. I didn’t understand some of the Irish words used but I could easily see what they meant. But, ultimately, I found myself a little disappointed by this collection.
Barrett’s prose reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald sometimes, with his violent asides being written so delicately that you have to reread to make sure that you understood it correctly. But mostly, this book reminded me of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe. All of the protagonists here are rather angry young men and aren’t sure how to direct this energy out into their limited societies, and these men really don’t understand women. The protagonists are in dead-end jobs and have no real hope of leaving their small towns. There are gangs, mammy stays in the kitchen cooking and nobody communicates via smartphones. There is no world outside the small town; even Dublin feels like a million miles away in most of the stories. Perhaps this unwillingness to change shows that young people are always the same, rebelling against whatever their elders ‘have got’.
I would like to read about contemporary masculinity but I don’t find it here. Or perhaps, I do. But I want contemporary literature to tell me more about modern masculinity than Sillitoe can. I want it to go deeper: I want to know why somebody would decide to break the jaw of the next person who comes into the pub, rather than simply being told that he did it.
The writing was good and the stories were well observed. I sympathised with Bat, for instance, in ‘Stand Your Skin’. Bat works in a dead-end job and doesn’t like to socialise anymore, since his jaw was randomly broken by somebody one night. He drinks far too much and he’s depressed. He can sense that there’s something going on between his co-workers: he’s a sensitive man. When the story’s perspective switches to that of Bat’s mother, we find out that ‘there is a part of her that hates her son. The enormous, fatiguing fragility of him.’ This story was my favourite because that fragility made it easier to be let in to Bat’s story. I want writers to hack away at their character’s pretensions.
Barrett can write sympathetically and it was this side of his stories that I enjoyed the most. When he let his characters be messy people who were confused, when the reader was allowed more into their headspaces I found the book to be more interesting. But when they were walking around causing light mayhem and talking about which girls they had had sex with because they had boring jobs I just felt like I had heard it thousands of times before. I was expecting a dissection of young contemporary manhood in small-town Ireland. Perhaps my expectiations were too high but I feel like, in this respect, the author has only scratched the surface.