Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2013. 277 pages. $25.00.
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“A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.” The opening paragraph of Kevin Barry’s debut novel describes the river that cuts through this futuristic Irish city, fallen to rabble and class divide, the all-knowing voice of his aptly-chosen, first-person omniscient narrator imbued with a musical prose that at once reels us in. Voice, character, setting—it is from these elements that fiction springs, and the best fiction embodies a surefire medley of all three. Here, they build upon one another in an ingenious mix of lively language and characters driven by a moody longing born of place. For Barry, author of the acclaimed story collection There Are Little Kingdoms and recently-named winner of the prestigious Impac Dublin Literary Award, the result is a riveting, fanciful page-turner, artfully graphic in its depictions of gritty violence. Readers of City of Bohane, much like its characters, will find it impossible to escape unscathed.
The opening introduces us to Logan Harnett, longtime leader of the Harnett Fancy gang. “He had that Back Trace look to him,” writes Barry, “a dapper buck in a natty-boy Crombie, the Crombie draped all casual-like over the shoulders of a pale grey Eyetie suit, mohair. Mouth of teeth on him like a vandalized graveyard but we all have our crosses.” Nicknamed “the Long Fella,” Harnett is as ruthless and fraught with troubles as Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson. Rumor is the Gant has returned. Gant Broderick, gone twenty-five years, led the gang before Logan Harnett rose to power. Why he has mysteriously returned, and whether the love of his youth, Macu, now Logan’s wife, will run away with him, sets the plot churning. Also pivotal is the question of the Fancy gang’s fate and who will succeed the aging Harnett—the stealthy Wolfie Stanners or streetwise Jenni Ching, both seventeen, a subplot nicely complicated by Wolfie’s falling in love with the power-hungry Jenni.
City of Bohane’s success as a novel owes a large debt to Barry’s choices in language and point-of-view which allow us to dip in and out of this motley crew, each of them rife with brutality and vulnerability. His first person narrator speaks for the city in the tradition of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” yet never really comes into focus; in the middle of the book, we find out he is the proprietor of The Ancient & Historical Bohane Film Society—and little else—allowing him to serve as camera upon his fellow cast. Barry draws his tertiary characters as bluntly and colorfully as his star players. Consider this passage describing the lady at the helm of Blind Nora’s. It was:
a low joint . . . patronised only by the very desperate. If you were turfed out of every place else in the city, there’d be a roost for you yet at Nora’s. Nora was an enormous cheese-coloured old blind lady with ringlets of black curls, like a doll’s. She was perched on a divan down back of the room. She drank psycho-active mushroom tea, delicately, from a Chinkee pot. She was magnificently fat. She beamed for Ol’ Boy and shuffled along the divan, haunch by ample haunch, and he moved in beside her, crossed his legs, laid a hand on her knee.
Blind Nora makes a scant appearance, but the rendering of her physical traits and behavior exemplifies how Barry gives his characters the full attention they are due, no matter their role; in a few flashing lines, the individual is before us, living and breathing, drinking and scuffling. Barry isn’t afraid to linger, the omniscient first-person providing the advantages of third, and lures us closer, until we fall enamored. For nearly all of the main characters, moments of violence are offset by moments of tenderness. Early on in the novel, shortly upon meeting the appropriately named Wolfie and his cohort Fucker Burke, the two minions of Harnett carry out a gruesome back alley hit: “Wolfie meantime worked his stormtroopers repeatedly about the man’s face in neat precise stomps—happy in his work, the boy—so it would be a while anyways before this meat had a name put to it.”
Our impression of Wolfie, however, expands as Barry shows us the orphaned teenager in softer exchanges, particularly those that concern his affection for Jenni. Following an errand to a whorehouse, Wolfie asks Ed Lenihan, “the oldest hoormaster in creation,” about his having a baby with Jenni Ching, and if such an offspring might turn out alright. It’s a touching, fatherly moment, one of the most poignant in the book. As the scene serves to round out Wolfie’s lethal side, it also highlights the absence of connection in the boys’ relationship to their godfather Harnett, who for all his weariness remains removed and hardened from his decades-long grasp of power.
While a cursory encounter with City of Bohane may give the impression that it is an overtly masculine book, in the vein of Cormac McCarthy or Irvine Welsh, nothing could be further from the truth. The real mastermind behind Harnett’s control of the city is his eighty-nine-year old mother, Girly, who spends her days holed up in a hotel, a Miss Havisham-turned-underworld madam. Logan’s wife, Macu, charts her own course away from Harnett. And the book’s final turn rests on Jenni Ching and the real possibility of the Fancy gang morphing into a female-dominated force, evocative of Neal Stephenson’s speculative classic The Diamond Age and its preoccupation with rising girl power.
It’s worth noting that Barry sets his novel in 2053. Its bleakness certainly qualifies as dystopic. But his story is not cluttered with the usual speculations on technology, or what happened to Bohane during the “lost-time.” He merely provides enough strange details to make us believe this future world where people have a nostalgic fondness for old Hollywood films, don a variety of steelcap boots, employ skewed spelling, and get high in dream-salons—an Ireland where calypso music is all the rage. “He walked along the docks and breathed in the sweet badness of the river,” Barry writes of Harnett in the beginning. “Sweet badness,” the perfect phrase for souls who tumble and feud towards the final showdown, dragging our hearts along with them.