A Weekend in the Country, Roiled by a Kidnapping

WILD HOUSES, by Colin Barrett

In Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?,” a man whose wife has left him places the entirety of their home on his front lawn, arranged as it was on the inside, as an act of defiant despair. A young couple, referred to only as the boy and the girl, come along and presume the man is holding a yard sale. They barter for the haunted detritus of a failed marriage, and later the girl senses what the boy never does — that their life together may one day mirror that of the man and his unseen ex-wife.

I thought often of that story while reading Colin Barrett’s heartbreaker of a debut novel, “Wild Houses,” which is set over a single weekend in the small Irish town of Ballina, in County Mayo. Crowds have arrived for the annual Salmon Festival, and 17-year-old Nicky Hennigan, who works as a waitress at the Pearl Hotel, is facing a gantlet of shifts without a day off when her boyfriend, Doll English, disappears.

Doll has been kidnapped by Gabe and Sketch Ferdia, two brothers of “tired malice” who have a seemingly limitless potential for gutter violence. The Ferdia brothers have brought Doll, unannounced, to the home of Dev Hendrick, a somewhat gentle giant who lives in rural isolation with Georgie, a dog who mostly ignores him.

Everyone seems to ignore Dev or take him for a simpleton or, ironically, given his size, a weakling. As he becomes the unwitting host of a poorly planned ransom demand, he’s given opportunity to reflect on a life lived less in quiet desperation than in desperate passivity. Given to panic attacks that begin with a “cold, almost ecstatic, shiver … along the nape of his neck”andturn his throat into a “shrinking keyhole,” Dev might be the only hope Doll has to walk out of the house alive. But how does a man somewhat addicted to inaction pick the correct moment to act?

The Ferdia brothers have kidnapped Doll because his brother, Cillian, a feckless and failed drug dealer, owes them 18,000 euros after drugs he stashed on their behalf were destroyed in a natural calamity. Natural calamities of all shapes and sizes abound in “Wild Houses.” So does abandonment: Nicky was raised by a brother after her parents died when she was young; Dev’s beloved mother has recently died while his mentally ill father wanders about town trying to press strangers into laying bets for him at the track; Doll and Cillian were long ago abandoned by their father and left in the care of their mother, Sheila, who has migraines caused by a “sensitivity to light. Too much light, direct light, light above a certain intensity.”

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