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Read an extract from Kevin Barry’s new title, The Heart in Winter

Read an extract from Kevin Barry’s new title, The Heart in Winter


by Sarah Gill
12th Jun 2024

Award-winning writer Kevin Barry’s first novel set in America, The Heart in Winter is a savagely funny and achingly romantic tale of young lovers on the lam in 1890s Montana.

Butte, Montana, October 1891, and a hard winter approaches across the Rocky Mountains. The city is rich in copper mines and rampant with vice and debauchery among a hard-living crowd of immigrant Irish workers. Here we find Tom Rourke, a young poet and ballad maker of the town, but also a doper, a drinker, and a fearsome degenerate.

Just as he feels his life is heading nowhere fast, Polly Gillespie arrives in town as the new bride of the extremely devout mine captain Long Anthony Harrington. A thunderbolt love affair takes spark between Tom and Polly and they strike out west on a stolen horse, moving through the bad-lands of Montana and Idaho, and briefly an idyll of wild romance perfects itself. But a posse of deranged Cornish gunsmen are soon in hot pursuit of the lovers, and closing in fast…

Read on for the extract below…

kevin barry the heart in winter

The First Encounter

On Wyoming Street in the evening a patent Irish stumbled by, some crazy old meathead in a motley of rags and filthy buck-skin, wild tufts of hair sticking out the ears, the eyes burning now like hot stars, now clamped shut in a kind of ecstasy, and he lurched and tottered on broken boots like a nightmare overgrown child, like some massive obliterated eejit child, and he sang out his wares in a sweet clear lilting –

Pot-ay-toes?
Hot po-tay-toes?
Hot pot-ah-toes a pe-nny?

His verse swung across the raw naked street and back again, and was musical, but he had no potatoes at all. Tom Rourke turned and looked after the man with great feeling. To be old and mad and forgotten on the mountain – was it all laid out the fuck ahead of him?

It was the October again. Rourke himself approached the street at this hour in suave array and manic tatters. He was nine years climbing the slow hill of Wyoming Street and there was not a single medal pinned to his chest for it. In the evening sun the East Ridge glowed sombre and gold and an ignorant wind brought news of the winter. He was appalled at the charismatic light. He marched into the cold wind. He gave out yards to himself. He rejected once more the possibility of God. His body was tense and his mind abroad. He was turned first one way, now the other. He walked as calamity. He walked under Libra.

He was living all this bullshit from the inside out. Oh, he scathed himself and harangued and to his own feet flung down fresh charges. But there were dreams of escape, too – one day you could ride south on a fine horse for the Monida Pass.

In truth he was often a bit shaky at the hour of dusk and switchable of mood but there was more to it this evening. Somehow his dreams were taking on contour and heft, and the odd stirrings that he felt were deep and premonitory, as at the approach of a dangerous fate.

Now a train eerily whistled as it entered the yards of the Union Pacific and he was twitching like a motherfucker out of control.

By Park and Main the darkness had fallen. He looked in at the Board of Trade for a consultation. He took a glass of whiskey and a beer chaser. He slapped the one and sipped the other. The bad nerves fell away on a quick grade to calmness and resolve. He gathered himself beautifully. He took out a pad and a length of pencil. He looked to the long mirror above the bar and spoke without turning to Patrick Holohan, of Eyeries, County Cork, a miner of the Whistler pit –

Object matrimony, he said.

Holohan in turn considered the mirror warily –

Go again, Tom?

It’s what we say early on. It’s cards on the fucken table time.
Show that you’re not playing games with the girl. What’s it her name is anyhow?

Holohan with native shyness slid a letter along the bartop. The wet papery flutters of his breath meant a lunger in the long run. Tom Rourke unfolded the letter and briefly read – you’d need a heart of stone in this line – and he began fluently at once to write.

This’ll only be a rough go at it, he said. See if we can strike some manner of tone. Reassure the girl.

Moments passed by in the calm of composition. Looking up, briefly, in search of a word, he saw Pat Holohan in the mirror observing the work with guilt. There was terror in the man’s eyes that he might have a measure of happiness due.

Dear Miss Stapleton – Rourke spoke it now as he read over the words – or Margaret, if I may be so bold. It is my enormous good fortune to have the opportunity today to write to you, and if the marks on the page are not my own, you will know that the words are, and that they are full in earnest.

Oh, that’s lovely, Tom, Holohan said, his face unclenching. More of it, boy.

I write to you in the hope, Margaret, as desperate as it may be, that you will consider a path west from your present situation in Boston and come join me here in the most prosperous town to be found upon the high plateau.

Upon the fucken what?

Mountain, Pat.

He finished the beer and signalled for a shot. Slapped it as it landed. He spun the pencil urbanely in his hand –

How’s the health, Patrick?

Holohan considered the dreary slopes of himself and jawed on his bottom lip and laid a hand to his swollen gut –

Jesus, he said.

Tom Rourke put pencil to the page again –

My object, Margaret, is matrimony, and I wish to state here that I am in as hale and eager a condition as any man might be, at least given the usual reverses a hard working life can bestow.

The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry is on sale now.