- Merthyr Tydfil
Desmond Barry was born and brought up in Wales and studied History at University College, London, after which he taught English in Italy.
In the mid-1980s he moved to the USA and lived there for 16 years. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and teaches writing at the University of Glamorgan.
His first novel, The Chivalry of Crime (2000), combines a fictional account of a young gunslinger with the true story of Jesse James. It was shortlisted for the 2001 Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year, and won the Western Writers of America Best First Novel of the Year Award. A Bloody Good Friday (2001), his second novel, is set in Merthyr Tydfil in 1977, and combines the Irish myth of Cuchullain, the death of a local hard case and the outbreak of a racist skinhead riot. Cressida’s Bed (2004) is set in 1930s India, and is the story of a feminist doctor, Christina Devenish, and her encounter with the Shabdrung of Bhutan.
Desmond Barry's short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and Granta, and in the anthologies Wales Half Welsh (2004), London Noir (2006), Sea Stories (2007) and Merthyr Writing! (2008).
Although The Chivalry of Crime (2000) was Desmond Barry’s first published novel, it was the more obviously autobiographical A Bloody Good Friday (2001) that was actually written first.
Barry, who was living in the United States at the time, failed to rouse the interest of American literary agents with his tale of racially motivated violence on the streets of Merthyr Tydfil in the South Wales valleys - this is hardly surprising given that those contacted had no idea where Merthyr was - and realised he had to discover a different subject. However, A Bloody Good Friday did serve to get Barry onto the University of Colombia MFA programme in Creative Writing; it was there, under the tutelage of double Booker Prize Winning novelist Peter Carey, for whom Barry later worked as a researcher, that The Chivalry of Crime was born. Since then, Barry has published two further novels and has, in a relatively short space of time, become one of Wales’ most widely acclaimed contemporary authors.
The Chivalry of Crime is a great achievement. Intricately plotted and beautifully written, it is suffused with the sort of detail which allows us to believe that we have walked straight into the middle of a John Ford film. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Peter Carey’s own historical fictions, Barry’s debut is full of the music, the smells and flavours of the American past. It mixes real and invented characters and is, from the opening, completely alive. Poetic in its description of place and rich in its treatment of the myths of America’s history, The Chivalry of Crime is a raw, yet deeply sensitive portrayal, of a time of Southern honour and in-the-veins racism, of saloon bar whores and knowing cardsharps, of gamblers and whiskey-soaked drunks, of Old Testament justice fired down the barrel of a gun. The novel recounts the life of legendary gunslinger outlaw Jesse James: this was a time when such men made newspaper headlines all over the world; when they were revered as much as they were reviled. It also tells the story of young Joshua, a Welsh immigrant and 'a would-be shootist who owned no gun.' Joshua is obsessed with the story of Jesse James and hears all about his hero from Robert Ford - the man who became infamous for killing James - when Joshua’s own gun crime lands him in prison.
Barry grew up watching Westerns, and his love for these stories is evident in every page of the novel. However, even for someone who has little interest in the Western, be that on celluloid or paper (and I speak as one), The Chivalry of Crime is a compulsive read. Stirring, compelling, honest and evocative, it succeeds on every level. The author’s ability to evoke the period is quite staggering; he involves us in an imaginative world that is superbly realised, a world 'made of cow towns and mining camps and cities full of thieves and con men,' when all that counted was 'abandoned to the cause of violence.' Indeed, it is violence that is at the heart of the novel, be it casual or pre-meditated. Barry shows us neighbour killing neighbour, and how the characters are trapped within a cycle of murder, revenge and retribution; they are beholden to their world’s eye-for-eye laws, unable to see outside.
On the surface, A Bloody Good Friday may seem like a complete departure from The Chivalry of Crime. Based on the race riots which broke out in Merthyr Tydfil in 1977, it is narrated by Davey Daunt, a thoughtful soul with a leg brace whose friends call him Spazz. Davey is here to tell us exactly what happened: 'I have drunk with those men and women, boys and girls, in order to loosen their tongues; and I have wheedled and connived, lied and tricked in order to trip their stories out of their mouths.' But the world of A Bloody Good Friday is not so far away from that of Barry’s first novel. Barry was brought up in Merthyr, on the Gurnos Estate, a place usually prefixed in the press with the adjective 'notorious'. Like many Valleys towns, particularly at the weekend at closing time, the sense of a modern Wild West is palpable; it is a world of 'clowns and idiot savants … skinheads and greasers … world-class shepherds and champion ratters,' where fights are routine and spilt blood is as common as spilt lager. Full of action and moments of refreshing, quiet lyricism, A Bloody Good Friday is another example of Barry’s almost uncanny ability to evoke place. His Merthyr is so real we can feel it under our feet.
A Bloody Good Friday grew out of a poem written in the Merthyr dialect and has an incessant narrative rhythm which pulls us along in its wake. The dialogue is sharp and witty, the observations on valleys life and culture deadly accurate, and the tale at once wry, melancholic and haunting. Like The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday is about the need to belong, the love for a community, the awareness that forces beyond your control are intent on destroying it. It is the moments of tenderness and togetherness that deepen these novels. They may both be written in blood, they may be warnings about people locked into worlds and situations and behaviours that cause their own destruction, but they are also hymns - to people, to places, and to the importance of the spiritual.
Each of these themes is present in Cressida’s Bed (2004), which also interweaves fact and fiction. Set in 1930s India, it is the story of Dr. Christina Devenish, Theosophist and owner of a birth control clinic in Bombay. When it burns down in an independence riot and she is injured, Christina’s father, an advisor to the Shabdrung, the Bhutan version of the Dalai Lama, invites her to the closed remote kingdom to convalesce. Arriving there with a British expeditionary force led by Major Owen Davies, who works for Raj intelligence, Christina finds herself involved in the unscrupulous 'Great Game', where the maintenance of power and influence is foremost.
Barry has studied Tibetan religion and practised meditation for over 20 years, and his interest in the philosophy of religion is apparent throughout. He captures the mysticism of the Himalayan mountain kingdoms without falling into a Lonely Planet trap of easy, sentimental romanticising. Indeed, Cressida’s Bed is based on a real episode of British imperialism, and is as brutal and violent a novel as Barry’s first two. Yet it is also a love story, true, tender and, as ever with Barry, extremely real. Owen and Christina’s affair is as passionate and raw as anything else in Barry’s work, and gives Cressida’s Bed its beating heart. Their love is the love between two people who are, in different ways lost and stumbling, who hold fierce beliefs and loyalties, whose passions will ultimately lead to a devastating end.
Desmond Barry doesn’t play literary games. There are no post-modern tricks in his fiction, no wild authorial intrusions into the narrative, no pronouncements or knowing asides. He is, first and foremost, a traditional storyteller, and an extremely good one. Barry’s books are inspired re-imaginings, meticulously researched recreations of real moments. For those who appreciate novels which respect character, place and dialogue, they are unmissable.
Garan Holcombe, 2006