Book Review: City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
Something is rotten in the city of Bohane. From the lines of hoor houses and dream pipe saloons in Smoketown to the bloodthirsty Cusacks in the Northside Rises to the head of the Hartnett Fancy, Logan Hartnett himself, brooding with his wife Macu in his Beauvista manse—it is troubled times in Bohane when Kevin Barry’s book begins. From page one, Barry dumps the reader directly into his engulfing and original city in his debut novel, City of Bohane (Graywolf Press 2012). His prose (explosive, uncontainable) exemplifies the hectic pace and beating life of his city, making Bohane a truly immersive environment. With casual brutality and the profanity-laced Bohane-slang, it’s not a novel for the faint of heart. But the proud citizens of Bohane wouldn’t have it any other way.
The book begins like the opening shot of a movie, following Logan on his nightly jaunt through the winding streets of the Back Trace. He is the head of the gang-in-power and dressed up to the nines with “a dapper buck in a natty-boy Crombie, the Crombie draped all casual-like over the shoulders.” Logan has his hands full, with the aforementioned Cusacks wanting war, his wife unsatisfied, and word of his nemesis the Gant Broderick returning to Bohane. He seems to be the only thing holding together Bohane, a small coastal city in Ireland “so homicidal you needed to watch out on all sides.” The year is supposedly 2053, though the dandy dress, lack of modern technology, and antiquated phrases suggest an earlier time. Yet somehow Barry makes all this believable, due to his old-meets-new Bohane vernacular. “Dude” and “hombre” are at home with “lardarse” and “shkelp.” Occasionally, the dialect is so thick that the meaning has to be puzzled out phonetically. While at first jarring, the city’s unique language eventually defines its atmosphere and rugged charm.
Even more, Barry’s tale bounces throughout his city, establishing a fictional location that is both believable and bizarre. When describing the slick Ol-Boy Mannion, a powerful political presence in Bohane, Barry demonstrates the complexity of “the Bohane creation”:
He was as comfortable sitting for a powwow in the drawing room of a Beauvista manse as he was making a rendezvous at a Rises flatblock. Divil a bit stirred in the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge. He was on jivey, fist-bumping terms with the suits of the business district—those blithe and lardy boys who worked Endeavour Avenue in the Bohane New Town—and he could chew the fat equably with the most ignorant of Big Nothin’ spud-aters.
There is so much flavor to the city, so much excitement in the language, it makes other literature look monochromatic.
The novel tracks nearly a year in Bohane, broken into small chapters that follow Barry’s vivid cast of characters. In the maze of streets known as the Back Trace, watch out for Wolfie Stanners and Fucker Burke, footsoldiers in the Hartnett Fancy and hellraisers since youth. The grimy alleys of Smoketown are run by Jenni Ching, the sassy young head of the Ho Pee Ching Oh-Kay Koffee Shoppe. Looming in the shadows is the Gant Broderick, a not-so-gentle giant stricken by nostalgia. And watching over the pandemonium is Dom Gleeson, the hilariously hypocritical head of Bohane’s sole newspaper, The Bohane Vindicator. Bohane is acutely attuned to fashion, and Barry describes his stylish characters down to every last Portuguese leather boot. This adds a cinematic vividness, and coupled with his elegantly potent descriptions (“mouth of teeth on him like a vandalized graveyard but we all have our crosses”), his quirky characters fit perfectly with the grit and humor of their city.
The actual plot of the book is not nearly as unique as Bohane itself or its dialect. The trials and tribulations of running a gang have been chronicled extensively. If you’ve seen City of God or Gangs of New York there is little surprise in the novel’s development. Barry, with a wink, even plays with these tropes; a street skirmish is described after the fact in a darkroom as one of the Vindicator’s photographers evaluates his shoot of the fight. Barry’s stylized, intense and extremely profane prose enlivens what could have been a tired plot, adding integrity to the characters and jolts of genuine surprise. Even more, Barry refuses to give any easy answers, not about his morally corrupt but somehow sympathetic characters or about the specific history that left Bohane reeling into the past.
Bohane is a place that requires exploration, full of tiny wonders and exquisite (if occasionally revolting) details. That Barry is able to craft such an atmosphere from his style is laudable. That he is able to fill it with characters that exemplify both the beauty and horror of Bohane and that he can make the reader laugh and shudder (often at the same time) is a pleasure. Just as the Gant Broderick is drawn back from exile, the book exerts a gravitational pull on the reader. After finishing, the city of Bohane begs for another visit, another stroll down Riverside Boulevard. Despite the knife fights and the sour air coming off of the Bohane River, it’s nearly impossible to say no.