Sunday Story Society: “Atlantic City”

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Welcome to the Sunday Story Society discussion of Kevin Barry’s “Atlantic City“. If you’ve not seen one of these before, I always start with a round-up of some online commentary, before opening the comments up to you.

As far as I’ve seen, responses to “Atlantic City” have been overwhelmingly positive – like this one, from Daragh Reddin in Metro:

In…’Atlantic City’ – the languid atmosphere of a sultry summer night in a non-descript midlands town is perfectly evoked. Barry’s dialogue here is suitably sure-footed and he demonstrates a deft hand in capturing the unrealised aspirations of his characters.

Peter McClean praised the story’s sense of place:

[“Atlantic City”] captures the very essence of its location; it portrays the characters in a vivid reality; it uses the real language of the people involved.

For Rob Burdock, Barry turned the ordinary into something more:

The main ‘star’ of this story is James, a lad who would be considered unremarkable in almost any other setting. Yet in this ramshackle arcade – which in itself can be best described as ordinary and plain – James stands on a pedestal as a god among men (and women), and Barry exalts him magnificently.

There are also further positive write-ups of “Atlantic City” and its collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, from Mel u; Andrew of Slightly Read; Elaine Chiew for The Short Review; Rozz Lewis; and Marc Goldin for Laura Hird’s New Review.

So, how did you find “Atlantic City”?


  1. The humour, sense of place and the way James is exalted is praised by other reviewers you link to above. I agree these are strong aspects – and I love how the voice seems to balance precariously between lampooning and inhabiting the characters (their bad sex chat and awkwardness, sentimentalism, gender divides like something out of a school dance, etc).

    I worried on first read, however, that this wasn’t adding up add up to much more than a good character/scene sketch with no purpose. Until, that is, that final paragraph and we learn of the death, casting the rest of the story (and my own feelings of ‘oh, what a dismal situation’) into a different light, of these lives going nowhere but being full lives nonetheless. I loved this twist-in-the-tail aspect of the story.

    I’m a big fan of Barry’s prize-winning Beer Trip to Llandudno and Atlantic City feels like an embryonic version of the same themes. I think it’s a good story but not great. And both stories are told closer to the view point of the men depicted, which I think is handled better – more explicitly – in Beer Trip.

  2. I’m interested that evastalker sees the ending as a twist in the tail because it came to me as no surprise that James dies, simply because there is no else for him to go in this story in terms of who and what he is. His performance – and it is a performance, carefully honed, by turns kind, generous and sarcastic – is so perfectly tailored to Broad Street, to the arcade and the group that gathers there he can’t reproduce it elsewhere without starting again from scratch. His tragedy, if you like, is that he is the big fish in a tolerably sized pool, who has probably already worked out that he won’t survive as a small fish in a larger pool, be that the world outside, literally, or more metaphorically, adulthood.

    This is, as the gorgeous opening sentence of the story signals, the last perfect moment, of summer and of James, who seems to be so strongly identified with the moment. Indeed, the story seems to be a series of dying falls – James’s acknowledgement that he can’t top the boy’s score on the pinball machine may be feigned but then again, it might be true, considering how he distracts from that moment, but the Garda is immune to his charm, already hinting that he may struggle beyond the magical space of Moloney’s Arcade.

  3. I really enjoyed this story. I agree with Maureen that James was very much ‘the big fish in a tolerably sized pool’. I think Barry did an excellent job of making him one of those characters that you find in all smallish towns – full of themselves, hard to like, slightly menacing but often with some grim reason for their behaviour. In this case, that seems to be the death of James’s father, his reenactment of which suggests that James witnessed it himself.

    The other thing I found interesting was the length of Barry’s sentences. He manages to create extended compound sentences that flow and are interesting. I’m in awe of his skill.

  4. David Hebblethwaite

    19th August 2012 at 4:54 pm

    On the voice:

    Eva makes an interesting point about the voice “balanc[ing] precariously between lampooning and inhabiting the characters”. I think that’s part of the story’s larger theme, that life on Broad Street balances the light-heartedness of teenage summers with the melancholy fact that time marches on and tragedy can lie in wait.

    Like Naomi, I’m impressed by Barry’s facility with such long sentences – that’s a rare skill in a writer, I think. I’d love to hear him read a story; I really get the impression that his writing would lend itself to it.

  5. It’s interesting to read your take on the ending, Maureen. Like you, I’d appreciated that he’d nowhere to go, but that thought led to different expectations for me. I think my surprise came from a slight anticipation of a ‘we’ll keep on keeping on’ sort of ending in tone with the repetition of their lives in Broad Street – the ending it looked like I was getting, right up to the end of the penultimate sentence.

    I like what you’re saying about the perfect, fading moment of summer and James being ‘strongly identified with the moment’ – I appreciate this on re-reading.

    I totally agree with naomifrisby on Barry’s sentences, love that.

  6. David Hebblethwaite

    19th August 2012 at 5:17 pm

    On the ending:

    I wasn’t expecting to hear that James died at the end (I appreciate that’s not quite you said, Maureen); but I didn’t think of it as a twist either – as Maureen implies, it feels part of the fabric of the story. The part that did surprise me, actually, was when the Garda arrived: Barry had created the golden world of the boys and the arcade so solidly that the intrusion of the Garda felt like something that couldn’t (shouldn’t) happen in that place.

  7. David Hebblethwaite

    19th August 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Here’s a question: how well do you think the Atlantic City pinball machine works as the story’s central metaphor?

  8. (Apologies for brevity at this point – posted from a bar in Edinburgh…)

    Liked this one well enough – it was evocative, in places beautifully told, and the last few lines were a kick in the nuts in encapsulating that some people are all about a certain time of life, a moment they are golden in and when the moment moves on, life no longer has any use for them – thought that was beautifully done.

    However, I had some niggly quibbles. In no particular order:

    Prose – in places it was terribly beautiful, but the propensity for long flowing run-on sentences for me over-balanced into Joycean territory at times, *almost* pastiche in fact.

    Setting – took me ages to work out it was set in Ireland (dunno where the reviewer at the top got Midlands from…). If the story had been about comparing a teen life in Ireland to one in America (and unless I’m missing something fundamental I don’t think it was), then setting up an expectation of an American setting with the title, and then undercutting it with the story, would be fine, but in this case I felt a simple setting flag early in the story would really help the reader find their feet.

    Specificity – there was a weird sense that the story could have been about any small town anywhere. With ref to my previous point, it took a while until there were enough details for me to realise it *wasn’t* set in America somewhere. In a way that’s fine – it’s a universal story familiar to many – but it feels like it’s told in generalities. James felt like more of an archetype than a real person.

    All in all I felt it did what it set out to do, but I didn’t love it.

  9. >Here’s a question: how well do you think the Atlantic City pinball machine works as the story’s central metaphor?

    The fact that James could effectively keep all the balls alive for as long as he wanted, but at last chose to let them go?

    Not sure I see it as a central metaphor as much as, as Maureen suggested, one of a series of dying falls.

    Have to say – now having read other comments – I think one of the things that missing for me is an actual sense that this is a special night, a final night – other than the garda who could have been a lot heavier on James, there wasn’t really a sense of an ending.

  10. I think Neil, that the reviewer is referring to the midlands region of Ireland but for the first couple of lines I actually thought that it was set in Birmingham as the main street there is Broad Street.

    As for the pinball machine, I’m not sure it did work. It seems to suggest that James is in control and yes, he is in that scenario but then his death undermines that. I thought the game of pool was more interesting and more revealing in terms of character.

  11. David Hebblethwaite

    19th August 2012 at 7:37 pm


    dunno where the reviewer at the top got Midlands from

    Sorry, I didn’t make it clear that that quote is from the Irish Metro; as Naomi says, the reviewer is talking about the Irish midlands.

    I already knew the story was set in Ireland from the advance research I’d done, so I can’t comment on that. But on your point:

    James felt like more of an archetype than a real person

    To me, he felt like something of both. James is emblematic of a ‘type’, sure – but I can imagine his existing. It’s part of the story’s point, though, that (as Maureen says) he can’t exist outside of this context.

    To my mind, the pinball machine represents James’s mastery of his domain (which is precarious anyway, as he has to keep reasserting it). When he uses the machine’s line on the Garda, and it doesn’t impress, that indicates he wouldn’t be able to cut it in the adult world. I think that metaphor works quite well.

    I think one of the things that missing for me is an actual sense that this is a special night, a final night

    I’d say that’s there in the confrontation with the Garda. It’s more a subtle indication – the beginning of the end, rather than the end itself

  12. David Hebblethwaite

    19th August 2012 at 8:00 pm

    Fair point about the pool game, Naomi. I’d say the pinball machine is where James claims his status, and the pool table is where he acts it out.

  13. I’ve been thinking some more about the story overnight; I realised that as much as anything James, as the archetype of summer, reminds me of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present. It is as though his role is to make everyone else’s summer perfect. Rereading the story, I’m struck again by how easily he could have mocked the young girls all dressed up and over-perfumed but while he is ridiculously OTT in his gallantry, there is a kind of delicacy in the way he treats them, playing the jukebox for them, teasing them, The odd exchange with Carmody about the woman shows a different side, emphasising the other delicacy, but it’s about Carmody and the woman, and I have the impression that James is not actually speaking from experience. His worldly wisdom is drawn from observation rather than experience. It’s as though it’s only within the arcade that he has experience, hence his mastery of the pool table and the pinball machine; what we never actually see is what happens outside the arcade. There are the hints but it’s like it is an enchanted space.

    And indeed, picking up on the pinball machine and the pool table, and David and Naomi’s comments, I wonder if the pinball machine doesn’t represent the way everyone else sees James whereas the pool table shows how he actually works for his supremacy. There is the line about Carmody having lost the game before it starts, but James likes to win stylishly and well, suggesting a certain kind of craftsmanship. It might suggest to that he wants to live his life stylishly and well, and if that means a short life, then so be it.

    Picking up Neil’s comment about it not feeling like a special night out, I wonder if it is supposed to function as such in retrospect, later, after James dies, and people start picking over the summer, That’s the one everyone remembers, the night James confronts the Garda, or surrendered at the pinball machine; I could see it being retrospectively significant. On the other hand, the emphasis on ritual, the fact of it being a small town, it could be that Saturday night is always special because it’s different, even though it’s always Saturday night. Or, indeed, there is the sense of this being the paradigmatic Saturday night made of bits of other memories.

  14. I’ve learned something! I didn’t know Ireland had a midlands. Cool.

    I think you’ve collectively got a point about James’s mastery of the pinball, and I like Maureen’s comparison to the way he goes about winning at pool. There’s an interesting element there: at pinball each player plays separately. it’s one person’s score versus another’s; but in pool you’re playing the man, and his reputation, as well as the shots he plays. Carmody’s lost before the game begins because he, and everyone else, knows that James always wins. There’s even a sense that it would somehow spoil things if anyone were to beat him.

    I’m still not convinced about the sense of an ending though. Maureen’s last paragraph is interesting – the idea that the night is “retrospectively” analysed, or in fact is a composite of many similar nights. it still doesn’t work for me though – I think I’m looking for a more direct human connection – who was it that was remembering the Saturday night. Who was the kid (Carmody? The kid who beat the pinball score?) who first saw the holes start to appear in James’s golden mantle, who was perhaps a little embarrassed by his pretty childish response to the Garda, who first sensed the that the summer was starting to end? Of course, if you introduce a more direct viewpoint character that necessitates another layer of story stuff which would get in the way of the telling, and in fact make it a different story.

    May be I just have to say it wasn’t the story I wanted it to be, and leave it at that. 🙂

  15. I’ve been thinking more about the Atlantic City motif at the heart of the story, not just the pinball machine but the wider ramifications. We were talking about the confusion about the story’s setting – the US or Ireland (or the UK) – and it occurs to me that the pinball machine rather perversely embodies the history of the Irish, the migration from the land (Broad Street, which isn’t as broad as the name implies) to America (Atlantic City). So, I suppose the pinball machine represents the closest that James will ever get to Atlantic City …

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