City of Bohane
Graywolf Press, hardcover
At first crack, reading Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane is like listening to the ramblings of a charismatic drunk. The tale begins without preamble, in visceral, colloquial language heavily peppered with obscure Irish slang. If one bothered to pause and Google every unfamiliar term—gack, lampin’, quarehawks, lackeen, sarky, polis—the narrative would quickly lose its natural flow. (Not to mention that some terms don’t seem to have made their way onto the internet.) But the narrator’s gritty, knowing voice gradually takes hold, and you begin to gain an intuitive grasp for the argot and character of Bohane. By then, you are well and truly hooked.
City of Bohane, Barry’s first novel, was previously released in the United Kingdom and Ireland and has drawn extraordinary accolades. Critics have compared Barry to James Joyce, Anthony Burgess, and Cormac McCarthy, and likened the delicately calibrated mechanics of the society within Bohane to that of The Wire. Indeed, Bohane contains tantalizing echoes of a wide variety of forebears, from A Clockwork Orange to West Side Story to Tom Waits. (You can almost hear Waits’ gravelly delivery in lines like: “The hardwind was bossing about the place belligerent as a [whore’s] broken-faced mother.”) Baltimore even gets a subtle hat-tip: The city of Bohane is referred to once as this “hard town by the sea,” a line from Randy Newman’s song “Baltimore.”
The novel is set in a small city in Ireland in the mid-2050s, though there’s nothing stereotypically futuristic about this world. The trappings of modern technology—cars, computers, guns—are absent and the smells of untreated sewage, pig’s blood, and chili noodles waft through the streets. In the seedy alleys of the Back Trace and Smoketown—where most of the story takes place—whorehouses, bars, and opium dens abound, and anyone worthy of respect is a flamboyant dandy. (Street thug Fucker Burke is described in one scene as wearing “[s]ilver high-top boots, drainpipe strides in a natty-boy mottle, a low-slung dirk belt and a three-quarter jacket of saffron-dyed sheepskin.”) Bohane is an insulated world; there are only a few glancing references to “over,” as the rest of the world is known. Immediately outside the city lies the Big Nothin’, populated by “sand-pikeys,” a tribal people whose culture has qualities variously reminiscent of indigenous groups, gypsies, slavers, and circus freaks.
The plot follows the political maneuverings of Logan Hartnett, aka the Albino, and his enemy, a man known as the Gant Broderick. Hartnett rules the streets of the Back Trace with the help of his gang of thugs, the Hartnett Fancy. He wields power Tammany Hall-style: The local newspaper consults with him before running columns and the police are so cowed they declare any murders committed by the Fancy Boys to be suicides. Hartnett is married to Macu, whom the Gant dated way back in the “lost-time” and still longs for. Now the Gant has come back to town after 25 years away, just as the gangs of the Northside Rises, an impoverished warren of apartment buildings north of the Trace, are beginning to rise up against Hartnett. The Gant and Hartnett engage in an underhanded battle over the dominion of Bohane’s ghettos and the love of Macu, but they are aging giants and both Macu and their underlings begin to have other ideas.
Throughout, Barry is a master of the art of the slow reveal. It is not, for instance, until page 82 that the reader has any idea what year it is, and then only in passing. The narrator himself turns out to be a minor character, but the reader doesn’t meet him until more than halfway through the novel. And highly relevant details about the plot—such as the fact that Gant and Macu only dated for three weeks—are revealed as casual asides, long after one expects.
Barry’s masterful control of story would suffice to make Bohane a page-turner, but his writing is what astonishes. The book seems to contain no filler, no throwaway sentences. Even his seemingly offhand descriptions of landscapes are full of character and possibility: “Dank little squares of the Trace opened out suddenly, like gasps,” Barry writes of a walk that Logan Hartnett takes, “. . . and there was the slap, the lift, the slap, the lift of Portuguese leather on the backstreet stones.” (To hear Barry give a spirited reading from City of Bohane, visit vimeo.com/28112291.) The language of the novel is often a delicious mix of high and low. In one scene, a character named Wolfie Stanners says approvingly of Macu: “Wouldn’t kick her outta bed for atein’ anchovies, like,” while in another Hartnett watches a spider “abseil” from a door frame, enjoying “its measured, shelving fall.” The method of delivery, too, is consistently inventive. A massive street fight is related, for instance, entirely in photo stills, as the local newspaper’s photographer works in his darkroom in the aftermath.
Near the end of City of Bohane, Barry writes: “When a reminiscence got going in the Back Trace, nights, it worked like a freestyle morphine jazz.” Likewise, Barry’s language in these final pages takes on an incantatory quality as we telescope outward from the narrative. With prose less precise than lyrical, Barry succeeds in making the reader feel the pulse of Bohane along with the characters, as the new guard and the old see in the “brightening sky at a slow fade the lost-time’s shimmer pass.” City of Bohane may bring to mind myriad other pieces of fiction, but it ultimately defies comparison.