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City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
Bohane is the throbbing epicentre of Big Nothin’. Its inhabitants are tribal, vicious, and territorial with a feral and possessive quality. The map accompanying the book to this area could be a province of Tolkien’s Middle Earth as much as this alternate western Irish seaboard of 2054. The river flows into the heart of Bohane and brings with it the smell and air the city folk breath as they go about their daily business of drinking, whoring, smoking, fighting and gambling. “Whatever is wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river.” The city is kept in line, just back from the edge of total deprivation by Logan Hartnett and his gang The Fancy. With his heavy muscle, the exquisitely named Fucker Burke and Wolfie Stanners, things tick along as only they can in Bohane.
The return of one of the city’s old boys, the Gant Broderick upsets this delicate balance between life and outright warfare. Barry’s building of Bohane City, its areas such as the North Side Rises, Smoke Town and Beauvista, and its people such as the grimy journalist Dom Gleeson, the fiery Jenni Ching, is quite sublime. The writing flows quick with snappy dialogue, unapologetically dark and edged in humour. It often hits you like an unexpected spit in your eye. You’re left quite literally reeling.
Gant flows into the town and causes whispering that alerts Logan that something is even more unsettling than normal in Bohane. Add to this the rising threat from across the regions from the Cusacks and it seems Logan’s grip on Bohane is certainly being prodded by all and sundry. A series of cloak-and-dagger meetings, memory-stirring letters between the Gant and Logan’s wife Macu as well as rising tension across Big Nothin’ spell out something big is going down in Bohane. And that spells trouble.
The story moves along at times like a film-noir, at other times like a graphic novel. The threat of conflict and betrayal is ever in the air and when bloody violence does erupt it occurs ‘offstage’ and presented through description of photographs of the battle. While being a very clever device, it lessens the impact of increasing tension, much of the taut expectations of the reader are left wanting. While near entire pages describe to the stitch the dress of each major character, we are left lacking somewhat on the true dept of Bohane’s characters, their lives and past experiences. There certainly seems to be more to the love triangle of Hartnett, Macu and the Gant than we are seeing on the surface. This perhaps could be a sign of Barry’s move from the short story form, in which he is extremely skilled at, to the longer form. More also could be put before the reader on the past relationship, for instance, of Logan Hartnett and his Mother, the intriguing spindly octogenarian.
Perhaps the biggest beast Bohane has given birth to is Barry himself. He is riding the crest of a huge wave of momentum at the moment and is drawing phenomenal attention wherever he appears to read. If you can get to any reading of his work by Kevin Barry himself, it is more than worth the trip. Barry does not just read his work, he lives it. You realise Barry writes for the ear as much as for the eye. At Galway’s Cuirt International Festival of Literature this year, he asked of Anne Enright, would she consider changing the arrangement and even words of a sentence so as to make it sound better. Enright thoughtfully responded, “Perhaps not”. Barry’s quiet nod of the head and raised eyebrow suggested he did exactly the opposite, and quite often too! Such is his emphasis on writing flowing language; his syntax is overruled by skill and craft with placing of colloquial narratives and dialogue.
City of Bohane is an accomplished debut novel from Barry, the Rooney Short-Story prize winner for his debut collection of stories There are Little Kingdoms. He presents himself as someone very comfortable in his style and language and Barry is indeed a writer of immense talent and passion. The language of Bohane is harsh and wild but crudely joyous. If the wonderful There are Little Kingdoms was Barry’s announcement of what to expect then City of Bohane is a loud confirmation that more greatness is to follow.