An Arena for Anarchy

Kevin Barry, The Heart in Winter

Canongate, 224pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781805302117

reviewed by John Hay

In the 1890s, with the rise of electric lighting and the need for copper wiring, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, headquartered in Butte, Montana, and owned by Irishman Marcus Daly, became one of the largest mining operations in the entire world. Buttressed by an enormous vein of copper, Butte was a boomtown, and the resulting labor opportunities — potentially lucrative but extremely dangerous — attracted an influx of Irish immigrants. By the turn of the century, over a quarter of its population was Irish, a greater proportion than in any other city in the United States. Butte earned a reputation as a rowdy, boisterous, Wild West locale. It was ‘the black heart of Montana,’ wrote historian Joseph Kinsey Howard, ‘sprawling and slovenly, a bully of a city, stridently male, profane and blustering and boastful.’

This frontier town, born and bred in violence, provides the setting for Irish writer Kevin Barry’s fourth novel, The Heart in Winter, which takes the form of a classic Western about two outlaw lovers on the lam. Barry’s Butte is an arena for anarchy, ‘screeching and crazy and loud as the depths of hell.’ In 1891, Tom Rourke, the book’s 29-year-old hero, is another Irishman wending his way through the city’s mean streets. An opium addict and an inveterate poet, he works by day as a photographer’s assistant. (His boss is consternated by the sudden popularity of ‘back-to-fronties’: portraits of women glancing over their shoulders, with rear ends in view, which he considers a form of ‘buggery and cavortion’.) In the evenings, Tom hits the saloons of the red-light district, where, in exchange for drinks, he helps his neighbours compose missives to entice nice girls out East to head out to Butte and become miners’ wives. A bard of the barroom who writes ‘letters for the lonesome,’ he contents himself with the Black Feather brothel on Galena Street.

The trouble begins when Tom Rourke (always written in full — never ‘Tom’ or ‘Rourke’ in the pages of the novel) meets Polly Gillespie, fresh from Chicago, who hopped on a train to meet and marry (within minutes!) Anaconda mining magnate Anthony Harrington. When the newlyweds stop into the studio for commemorative photographs, the connection between Tom and Polly is electric and irresistible. Polly’s inherent wildness bucks and chafes under the strictures of the self-flagellant Harrington’s household, and Tom comes to visit when Anthony isn’t home. Before long, the two embark on a devastating affair. They decide to steal some money and a stubborn palomino and make off in the night.

The plot of the novel moves along swiftly and delightfully; it’s easy to imagine a fun film adaptation that captures the punchy dialogue and the changing scenery — maybe a Martin McDonagh project, with Barry Keoghan and Saoirse Ronan as the outlaw lovers. Kevin Barry (whose other novels have all been optioned) has said that he was influenced by movies like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Days of Heaven, and his chapters suggest a sequence of compelling scenes, with more speech and action than psychological interiority. Tom and Polly flee from Butte and head to Pocatello, Idaho, assisted along the way by mushroom-tripping Métis mountain men and a gyrating, tequila-addled preacher. But the path is not easy. Harrington won’t lose his wife quietly, and the two lovebirds find themselves hounded by bounty hunters, including ‘a toothlackin Cornish gunman of extreme mental dubiety’. The writing is focused and intense, and humorous as well.

It’s this brilliant prose that makes the novel a standout. Barry has honed a style, somewhat in the vein of Cormac McCarthy, that is light on punctuation (no quotation marks to speak of), with occasional combinations of two words into one — e.g. ‘nightsky’, ‘morningtime’, ‘flycorpse’, ‘bluesmoke’. He also favours an occasional Miltonic inversion — ‘misdemeanours incalculable’, ‘sadnesses unanswerable’ — to add biblical gravity to these escapades. Dancing between the traditionally terse delivery of the gunman of the typical Western (the John Wayne voice) and the loquacious poetising of Irish songsters, Barry uses a clipped, paratactic style for his sentences but fills them with a broguish vocabulary appropriate to the bumbling and ‘foostering’ of his hero, Tom Rourke. He may not have the same eye for the landscape as many American-born writers of iconic Westerns, but Barry’s ear for the tough wit of the luckless adds an extra kick to this well-worn genre.

Occasionally, the drive to qualify every substantive and behaviour leads to absurd descriptions, as when Tom Rourke salts his eggs ‘unambiguously’ and swallows them ‘controversially’, or when he enters a bar with ‘heinous amber light'. But missed notes are rare in this performance. The combination of Western American and Irish American slang provides the novel a language of its own, one entirely — and amusingly — appropriate to the troublesome adventure of its characters. (It might be called ‘Yosemite Seamus.’) As a stranger on the road observes, Tom and Polly have found themselves in ‘a whole shitpile of botheration’.

Two themes in The Heart in Winter continue to resonate after the novel’s ending. One is the temperament of the Butte Irish. The local sheriff (himself a Hibernian) worries about ‘the deathhauntedness of the Irish brethren’. 'They succumbed to the tormentations of gowl,' writes Barry. ‘They were endlessly a source of maudlin fascination to themselves. They trotted out their stories in these circling and disputatious versions, and always with sombre refrain.’ Butte was one of the most dangerous towns in the West; thousands died in the mines. The conviction that they are on their way out might lead them, as the sheriff believes, towards reckless behavior. But it also births an existential poetry, a romantic expression of grace under pressure.

This demeanour comes alive in the other major theme, the peculiar fatedness of the outlaw life. His love for Polly Gillespie convinces Tom Rourke that he is governed by inhospitable forces beyond his control, ‘operated by an inept puppeteer’. In other words, he is directed ‘by hands unguessable’, a phrase Barry repeats in the novel. He’s a man on a mission who will stop at no cost for his true love. He’s gritty, determined, and ultimately unshakable — the best kind of Western hero. The Heart in Winter is Barry’s strongest novel yet, funny and exciting and strange; it’s destined to become a classic alongside works like Butcher’s Crossing and True Grit. It captures an immigrant perspective too often absent in the genre and fashions a new ballad for the Butte Irish.

John Hay has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, Desert Companion, and other venues. An English professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he is also the editor of the Las Vegas Review of Books.