A review of The Barbarian Parade by Kirby Gann

This is a stance with true commitment. It is evident in Our Napoleon in Rags and it flowers beautifully in The Barbarian Parade. There is indeed about the latter some virtuosity for its own sake, not at all a bad thing as things go. When Gann writes about soccer, for example, the effect is magical and convincing.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Barbarian Parade
by Kirby Gann
Hill Street Press 2003, ISBN 1-58818-065-4, $14.95, 245 pages

Although this is basically a review of The Barbarian Parade – Kirby Gann’s first novel – I want to look at it in conjunction with its successor, Our Napoleon in Rags, the preface that Gann wrote to the anthology (A Fine Excess) of which he was co-editor and two of his short stories. I have also allowed myself to be informed by my recent interview with Gann.

The short stories first. ‘Disasters of the Catastrophic Kind’ (1999) is egregiously southern in its dark humor and broad strokes. The narrator is a backward native who moves at a glacial pace in his courtship of the woman who runs the nearby motel. A younger man threatens to be a rival but disaster, in the form of a sulky dolphin, overtakes the stranger and the situation at the end is much as it was in the beginning. The second story ‘He Stared and Stared but the Doorway Remained Empty’ (2004) is more cosmopolitan in that it is set in Montreux, a city, however retarded. Roth, the character who is the center of interest has returned from his wanderings, the first that he has undertaken without his friends, Selena and Gilmore. The story takes us by careful stages through Roth’s realization that his friends have moved away from him and that their intertwined relationship is at an end. In a brief sketch at the end Roth witnesses in the parking lot a situation like his own acted out by strangers. The complexity and skill of structure in the second story is well beyond that of the first and represents the kind of sophistication to be found in Gann’s longer fiction.

In his preface to A Fine Excess (one of the most attractive books that I have seen in a long time) Gann, borrowing a phrase from Tom Wolfe, rejects “K-Mart Realism,” a kind of writing that, while supposedly realistic is really flat and drab, forgettable as the disposable items of our consumer-mad society. He pleads for a prose that has style and color.

This is a stance with true commitment. It is evident in Our Napoleon in Rags and it flowers beautifully in The Barbarian Parade. There is indeed about the latter some virtuosity for its own sake, not at all a bad thing as things go. When Gann writes about soccer, for example, the effect is magical and convincing.

Gaby, the hero of Parade, is the narrator and we are in his mind from an early age. He always intends well but does wrong with enormous facility and this provokes titanic family conflicts. The imprisonment of Ray the father on charges of which he may be innocent put Gaby and his mother Olive in constant direct collision, a collision aggravated by Olive’s alcoholism and progressively deteriorating self-control.

Gaby, without much grasp of his life, aspires to be a soccer star and almost succeeds. A torn leg muscle ends his hopes and he returns home to face the escalating conflict between his father, now out of prison, and Olive. She dies in an explosion of oxygen ignited by her carelessness in lighting a cigarette.

The last scene of family togetherness, a Christmas dinner, is the ugliest display of family hatred since that other Christmas feast in Joyce. In the end Gaby is alone, his one true love has no happy ending and faded from his story while he still played soccer. His parents are both dead and he and his brother, never close, have drifted apart. Gaby is left with an early memory of tree climbing, the very qualified success of which has been the measure of his life.

This bald description of the plot does small justice to the author’s command of the kind of colorful language that he champions. As Gaby embarks on his role as youngster kicked out of his home by a maddened mother, he reflects “Without my realizing, I had been launched into a wastrel life of couches and floors and the pose of eternal guest in another’s bed; I was making my first uncertain steps into the marching-band rhythm of the barbarian parade, of strangers met and cast away. I was no longer on the playground fields dreaming myself a conqueror; no longer welcome to that palace where the summit of an old maple tree caused rhapsody enough; now I found myself joining the masses raging at the gate.”

But Gann uses the short punch just as effectively as the long roll. When Gaby sums up Olive in her decline, he finds the exact words to say the best that he can of her, “glimpses of her goodness could yet be stolen.” Such simple words but what a burden of weary bitterness!

I find in Gann the same qualities that I find in the handful of writers who can be described unqualifiedly as great. A reader would commit a grave error to ignore Kirby Gann.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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