Monday 11 April 2011

'when giants collide'

City Of Bohane
by Kevin Barry

Have you ever had that experience when someone asks what you're reading and your attempt to explain makes it sound like the worst idea for a novel ever? That was exactly what happened as I read Kevin Barry's debut novel which I failed to summarise satisfactorily by mentioning it was set in a city on the west coast of Ireland about 40 years in the future where rival gangs fight for control - and it's funny. Cue thoroughly unimpressed look followed by my weak proposition - it's really good! Eventually I fell back on the book's blurb which I thought sounded terrible at first but actually summarises quite succinctly what it's like - 'As if Joyce had sat down and written Sin City' (to which I would only add - but in a good way!). Barry recalls not only Joyce and Miller but Anthony Burgess, Brett Easton Ellis and even Dylan Thomas too. All of these influences in no way overshadow Barry's unique voice which is inventive, exhilarating and entirely sustained throughout this riot of a novel. He has created a location and characters as vivid as in Thomas's Milk Wood, an idiomatic language as realised as Burgess' nadsat in A Clockwork Orange and writes with the purpose and poetry that Irish writers seem to be born with.

So can I do any better at describing this novel with the length of a blog post at my disposal? Fingers crossed. How about the opening paragraph and a visual aid first.

Whatever's 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. This is the Bohane river we're talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin' wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: the city of Bohane.

As you can see from the map above the City of Bohane is divided into distinct provinces. The ordered streets of New Town on one side of the tracks and the winding warren of the Back Trace on the other; the looming towers of the Northside Rises look all the way down on the festering streets of Smoketown ('Smoketown was hoors, herb, fetish parlours, grog pits, needle alleys, dream salons and Chinese restaurants'); all of it surrounded by the boggy wilderness of Big Nothin'. Sitting pretty on the coast in Beau Vista is Logan Hartnett, aka the Long Fella, aka the 'Bino (for his pale complexion) the man at the head of the Back Trace Fancy, the gang long in charge of the various schemes and criminal enterprises that run throughout Bohane, 'all of it as bleak as only the West of Ireland can be.' See him walking down the street:.

...a dapper buck in a natty-boy Crombie, the Crombie draped all casual-like over the shoulders of a pale Eyetie suit, mohair. Mouth of teeth on him like a vandalised graveyard but we all have our crosses. It was a pair of hand-stitched Portuguese boots that slapped his footfall, and the stress that fell, the emphasis, was money.
Clothes are deemed to be very important in Bohane with full descriptions given of outfits, a technique familiar to anyone who's read American Psycho although it never reaches the brain-numbing tedium of those. You'll also be starting to get an idea of the language at play here in this novel. The Bohane accent can be heard everywhere, 'flat and harsh along the consonants, sing-song and soupy on the vowels, betimes vaguely Caribbean.' It is an extraordinary mash-up with its roots in the west coast of Ireland but that Carribean influence tending to make itself heard at the ends of sentences with that question at the end already familiar today: 'y'sketchin?', 'y'check me?', or in their appeals to the almighty 'Sweet Baba Jay'. As a reader it takes a few pages to get used to and tends to slow the reading pace generally. This is only a good thing, the dialogue is hilarious, the descriptions fantastically rich and the overall effect completely immersive. The idea of a city in the year 2054 sounds potentially rubbish, the reality of reading it is always compelling.

You could almost do with a cast list at the beginning but the characters are so memorable (and named with almost Dickensian subtlety) that you won't have any problems keeping track. Logan's mother, Girly Hartnett, is the all-controlling matriarch, 89 years of age 'on a diet of hard booze and fat pills against the pain of her long existence' and happily ensconced at the Bohane Arms Hotel 'regally arranged on the plump pillows of a honeymooner's bed.' Logan's lieutenants Fucker Burke and Wolfie Stanners are both sadistically violent, although Wolfie's lovesickness threatens to compromise his focus. Playing all the angles is 17 year-old Jenni Ching, a 'saucy little ticket' who knows how to use her charms (and her excellent supply of opium or 'the dream') to keep all of the competing alpha-males panting obediently At a time of  potential uncertainty and weak leadership the big news in Bohane is the return of The Gant Broderick, missing for the last 25 years and what you could only describe as the natural enemy of Logan. Where has he been, why has he come back, what does he intend to do? He certainly wants to know as much as he can about Logan and his wife Macu ('from Immaculata') and it is the teenage Fucker Burke who eventually starts to spill the beans.
'Long Fella, he come 'roun' the dockside evenins, late one, I mean you be talkin' pas' the twelve bells at least, when he come creepin' the wharf, an' that's when you'd catch him cuttin' Trace-deep, an' he walk alone, sketch? An' it's like maybe he head for Tommie's - you know 'bout the supper room, sir? I can make a map for ya - or if mood take him maybe he haul his bones 'cross the footbridge, stop in at the Ho Pee, that's the Ching place, he might suck on a dream-pipe, coz Long Fella a martyr to the dream since the wall-eye missus took a scoot on him, and the Chings is known for the top dream, like, but o' course you mus' know 'bout the Ching gal, Jenni, the slant bint that been workin' her own game, if you askin' me? An' she got my boy Wolfie in a love muddle 'n' all, and that ain't like Wolfie, no sir it jus' fuckin' ain't, like, and the way I been seein' it, Gant, what's going down with the Back Trace Fancy, or I mean say what's on the soon-come with the Fancy, if it all plays out the way I'm expectin'...'
Mercy, the Gant thought, there's no shutting the kid up.
Sorry for the long quotation but I just had to give you a fair run at the dialogue. There isn't too much that I want to say about the plot: gang warfare, folklore, divided loyalties and bloody revenge; themes and ideas utterly familiar to just about any period of Irish history over the last 500 years, given a violent and entertaining twist here with characters that grab you by the lapels and force you to listen. Kevin Barry has already impressed those who have read his shorter fiction. His first 'feature-length' creation wasn't at all what I was expecting but I enjoyed every single second I spent in Bohane and might just have picked up a bit of the taint whilst I was there, y'check me?


Anonymous,  11 April 2011 at 21:44  

I ve not read Barry ,must admit my knowledge of modern writers limited heard people talk about him ,but this seems like the best of Burgess a dark world using new words and settings to potray the modern world through a new world ,it also made me think a bit of gangs of new york set in the future ,great review will ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 11 April 2011 at 23:41  

It's a belter Stu. Lots of fun. If I thought I could pull off the accent I'd be campaigning to be offered the chance to record the audio book. If I was the BBC, I'd buy the rights and turn it into a TV series to rival The Sopranos.

Max Cairnduff 12 April 2011 at 18:07  

I'm reminded slightly of Russell Hoban. The Burgess sounds like a good reference too though.

Literary sf. What fun. I have rather a soft spot for that territory. I'll need to check it out. I liked the quotes.

William Rycroft 13 April 2011 at 00:11  

I think you'd enjoy it Max, mainly because I challenge anyone not to! Apparently he is a fantastic reader of his own work too so if you get the chance to attend an event of his then it may well be worth your while.

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