October 29, 2012

"Ox Mountain Death Song"

Runner-up, 2012 Criticus Award!
(View announcement here. Winner here.)

By Kevin Barry
~3200 words

A soon-to-retire police sergeant stalks a terminally ill sociopath.

The omniscient perspective in this third-person narrative moves between Sergeant Tom Brown and a young rake referred to as Canavan (presumably his last name). Brown's determination to have Canavan "looked after" before his retirement in three weeks becomes a morbid obsession that drives the narrative. Meanwhile, Canavan's cancer diagnosis encourages him to act with impunity, pillaging widows and "planting babies all over the Ox Mountains." His preternatural knowledge of the landscape—"He knew the bog roads, the copses, the cypress arbors. He knew the recesses of the hills and the turlough hides. He knew the crannies of the coasts"—keeps him one step ahead of Brown for most of the tale.

The story has a fable-like quality that comes across in references to the characters as "particulars" but also as "types," and in allusions to the cyclical nature of the struggle in which they are engaged:
The years gave in, the years gave out, and only the trousers changed—breeches of sackcloth gave way to rain-soaked gabardine, gave way to tobacco-scented twill, and on to the denim variations (boot cut; straight leg; at glamorous times, beflared), and then to the nylon track pant, and then to cotton sweats. The signal gesture of a Canavan in all this time did not change: it was a jerk of thumb to the waistband to hoick up the pants.
The symbolic dimension is enhanced by consistent animal imagery. Canavan is compared on several occasions to a ferret, "the forked spit of the tongue lapping at the neck blood, the pointed teeth taking tendon and bone apart." Brown himself is a large, sweaty man who sucks honey straight from the tub, a fitting denizen of the eponymous Ox Mountains:
It was a place haunted by desperate mammals since the hills and mountains had cracked and opened—as the province of Connaught formed—a place with a diabolic feeling sometimes along its shale and bracken stretches; a darkness that seeped not from above but from beneath.
As the narrative progresses and Brown nears his much-coveted goal, it becomes clear that Canavan is not the only "desperate mammal" lurking in the Ox Mountains.

"Ox Mountain Death Song" is a unique story written in hauntingly beautiful language. One can practically hear the author's Irish lilt in the ebb and flow of the syntax, and the effortless lyricism pushes the piece into the realm of prose poetry. Despite the quasi-mythic dimension, however, the narrative manages to produce a pair of remarkably complex characters.


Reader poll: I found "Ox Mountain Death Song" to be ___.

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