The Heart in Winter: A Novel

Image of The Heart in Winter: A Novel
Release Date: 
July 9, 2024
Reviewed by: 

Kevin Barry is an Irish writer to the core with his wild, dark humor and his Gaelic intonations, a beautifully skewed syntax holding up a delicate balance of spluttering facetiousness and a sly acknowledgment of inevitable tragedy. Thus, readers might initially wonder at the setting of his new novel: Butte, Montana, in 1891, a town as “screeching and crazy as the depths of hell.”

But this is still Ireland in a sense. Butte is one of the most Irish of American cities. In the late 19th century, half of Butte’s population were Irish immigrants, running from the coal mines of Pennsylvania or the cities of New York and Massachusetts, hoping to find in the West a place of fewer prejudices against their kind even if they had to engage in the same back-breaking work.

The Heart in Winter could be a prequel to his futuristic debut novel, City of Bohane. Barry’s new novel has the same manic lyricism, the same rhythms of Irish speech, a similar ribald Irish diction, and the humor that cuts both to the funny bone and the solar plexus. Barry’s writing often seems like a tornado’s mix of James Joyce, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Flannery O’Connor. But what comes flying out of the tornado is pure, unmitigated Barry. For instance, the conversation the protagonist has with a fellow Corkman about a shooting Two-Bit Billy occasioned in one of the town’s saloons—“All I’m sayin is you’re a honest workin man stood there tryin to have a peaceful drink and there’s toes all over the fucken floor? That’s letting the place down something shocken and I don’t care what bar.”

The 29-year-old hero of The Heart in Winter, Tom Rourke, is a poet and singer of the Romantic hue, an opium smoker, a boozer, a frail battler, a photographer’s assistant on the edge of indigence, and a man ready for love and adventure. He finds it when he assists with the wedding photograph of Captain Anthony Harrington’s bride. “Her skin was pale and flawless but for a single electrifying mole on the shoulder’s blade. The tip of her nose twitched and her eyes searched for the camera but found instead Tom Rourke’s staring—It was at this moment that his heart turned.” Her name, she tells him, is Peggy Gillespie and with that, as they say, it all begins.

Tom is ready for a change. He feels alienated from his countrymen in Montana. “He would not live among his own kind. The Irish bastards were sentimental pigfuckers to a man.” The 27-year-old Polly, too, is ready for a new life. Very quickly she grows disenchanted with her 45-year-old husband, a Jesus freak who runs the Anaconda Mine when he is not self-flagellating or kneeling in prayer. Polly “knew she was in trouble already and she wasn’t three weeks in Butte.”

Once Tom and Polly escape from Butte after burning a business and stealing money, the picaresque adventure begins full tilt and with a little help from some metis they meet along the way and a gift of magic mushrooms. They are married by the Reverend, a fire-breathing preacher who seems to be taken right out of the pages of a Cormac McCarthy fiction.

At times, the journey of Tom and Polly reads like Adam and Ever returning to Eden or Romeo and Juliet running from Verona. Tom and Polly find a deserted cabin and name it Providence. Time stands still. “The haunted music of the place pierced the high country air. . . . The days unfolded and the nights and into the kind of peace that neither had ever known before and it was if it could have gone on forever.

But in novels, as in life, nothing goes on forever. Especially not for a “death-haunted” Irishman like Tom Rourke. Tom’s bad luck comes in the evil shape of Jago Marak, a character with all the lovability of Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and his two vile companions. And like other McCarthy novels, All the Pretty Horses or Cities of the Plain, Barry’s The Heart in Winter gives us a damaged hero on a quest that is headed toward tragedy. Beneath Barry’s comic surfaces and surprising idioms heartbreak always lurks. As Polly thinks at one point, “Ah the days now were long hard sentences not to speak of the nights and that’s when we’re most alone is the truth of it for most people is the nights.” Polly’s story, like Tom’s, is a dark inevitability. Broken hearts are scattered through the story. The reader’s included.