If you haven’t yet heard of Kevin Barry, now’s a good time to get in on the ground floor. His short fiction’s been doing the rounds for a while, he’s got a well-received collection to his name (There Are Little Kingdoms) and he was the 2007 recipient of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. But this year marks the release of his debut novel, City of Bohane, and if the short stories haven’t got you hanging on his every world, then this one ought to do the trick.
Part crime/gangster succession saga, part nostalgic ballad, part love-story and part homage to the beauty and elasticity of the English language, City of Bohane is a hard one to describe – but that’s what makes it so exhilarating to read. It’s set in the eponymous fictional city of Bohane, on an unidentifiable peninsula along the west coast of Ireland, some forty years in the future. Bohane is a Hibernian Gotham, a violent and tribal cityscape run by crooks, thieves and murderers. Their incumbent leader is Logan Hartnett, aka the Albino, aka the Long Fella; he’s run the town and headed up his gang, the Back Trace Fancy, for more than twenty years. But now not only has his old enemy, the Gant Broderick, returned to town, but his wife, Macu, the Gant’s ex, is getting sick of the street-life; his henchmen (seventeen year-old Fucker Burke; Wolfie Stanners, son of a murdered whore; and Jenni Ching, head of a pack of ‘feral teenage sluts’) are getting worryingly ambitious; and the other Bohane tribes are looking to break the long-held Calm that’s kept Bohane peaceful since the long-ago lost-times. And then there’s Logan’s mother, the much feared Girly Hartnett, ninety years-old and still pulling Bohane’s strings from her hotel sick-room. So what’s the leader of the Fancy to do? With the black Atlantic to the west, and the Big Nothin’ plains boxing the city off on all other sides, this isn’t a place where you’d want to wash up – but it is the stuff of brilliant literature.
The plot’s all intrigue and betrayal and shifting allegiances as the various characters try to negotiate their futures. To give any of it away would spoil some of the tension, so I won’t, but the actual events are only half of the story here. Barry’s real genius is in his reinvention of language – the way he’s taken the already distinctive Irish aural vernacular and twisted it – wrapped it around a jazzy riff and made it his own. It’s foul-mouthed and brutal and elegiac. Check it out:
‘His pale skin caught the low light of the Aliados – the skeleton of him was palpable, there greyly beneath the skin, the bone-machine that was Logan Hartnett – and he smiled his reassurance; it has weight to it in Bohane.’
‘The tottering old chimneys were stacked in great deranged happiness against the morning sky.’
‘You would so often see these word-less children out there, roaming the wastes, forming abstract shapes on their lips, and squealing mournfully into the hard-wind.’
I don’t think you’d really read this for its crime-novel leanings, but rather for the faux-nostalgic rhythms of its prose. Barry’s created a whole mythology here – a snarl of competing city gangs; traveller tribes at home in the sand-dunes, snatching female children to breed as caged fighting-slaves; a native music based on calypso rhythms rather than Celtic airs; a drug-laced culture of opiates, prostitutes, knife-fights, and tears for times past. It’s not a very long novel, but it’s rich and it’s one to savour – if you belt through it, you’ll miss the point. The cover blurbs reference Joyce (of course), Flann O’Brien and Anthony Burgess – I reckon it’s closest to the Burgess of A Clockwork Orange, with the author’s manipulations both of language and insane tailoring – I’d love to see the wardrobes a costume department of a film adaptation might conjure up for Logan and his cohorts. Structurally, the focus leaps from one character to the next, pausing longest on the Hartnett coterie, but also introducing the shadowy first-person narrator, a purveyor of historical Bohane movies, in a move that might alienate some readers, smacking perhaps a shade too much of meta-fictional trickery. You could argue, too, the plot is a little slight, but again, I think you’d be missing the point – the ride’s the thing here, not the trajectory of it. You want to lose yourself in Barry’s dystopian world and revel in his own peculiar dialect. It’s episodic and haunting, rather than gripping in the whodunnit sense.
Any Cop?: It won’t please everyone – some people won’t like the concentration required to get into Barry’s idiolect, others won’t appreciate the graphic violence and, to parrot the film censor people, the near-ubiquitous sexual swear-words. And some people might pick it up, mistaking it for a more straightforward gangster novel – they’re in for a surprise. But those of you that are after something that’s linguistically innovative, somewhat challenging and definitely different from anything else doing the rounds this spring – well, you could do no better than to get your mitts on a copy of City of Bohane. While I think Barry might not make it a mainstream winner, he’s sure to attain some significant cult status with this one, and I’m already waiting to see what he’s cooking up in the wings.