City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry
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: city of Bohane.
City of Bohane is a swaggerer of a novel. It opens with that paragraph above, with one of the punchiest first lines I’ve read in a while, then we’re into prose with the rhythms of spoken word. That’s how you open a novel. No argument.
City of Bohane is Barry’s first novel. It won him the 2013 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, and favourable reviews nearly across the board. Not bad for what on paper at least is a fairly straightforward and highly cinematic noir-sf novel. It’s a reminder of a truth that always bears repeating. It doesn’t matter what a book’s about, what genres you can box it into or influences you can point to. What matters is if it’s any good.
The year is 2053 and we’re in the (fictional) Irish city of Bohane, named after the Bohane river and sitting on the edge of the Big Nothing bog. Ostensibly anyway, but in a sense none of that is true. In some ways the novel could just as well have been set in 1950s’ Cork, but then Barry would have had less freedom to invent, to make the familiar strange and new.
City of Bohane is set in 2053 because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular time (people use typewriters, not computers, nothing’s digital). It’s set in the City of Bohane because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular place (apparently he based the geography on Porto, in Portugal). This isn’t then a novel of time or place in the usual way, but rather it’s a dream Ireland, a movie Ireland. Barry is avoiding the limits of fact so that he can create a contemporary myth.
As I write this, it’s been around six weeks since I read Bohane. Since then I’ve read some poetry, a Kate Wilhelm SF novel, a Charles Willeford crime novel, an Elena Ferrante, a William Gibson and a volume of Proust. Even after all that, as soon as I turn my mind to it the characters and style of Bohane come rushing back to me, still vivid, still alive.
Logan Hartnett leads the Hartnett Fancy, a criminal gang that run much of Bohane with the bought complicity of the local politicians and press. He’s a tall and slender man, known as “the Long Fella”, dapper and deadly.
There’s been peace in Bohane, or as much peace as it sees, for a good few years now. That’s about to end. There’s trouble with the Northside Rises, slum estates run by their own semi-feudal gangs. They’re eyeing Logan and his territory with growing ambition.
At the same time, word has it that the Gant has returned, Logan’s old rival from decades back. Logan ousted the Gant from the city, and took the Gant’s girlfriend as his wife. Now Logan’s own lieutenants, Wolfie and Fucker Burke, and the inimitable but much-imitated Jenni Ching, are starting to wonder if his heart’s in it any more and if not if there might soon be room at the top.
Think HBO. Think series like Deadwood or The Shield or Boardwalk Empire. Those are the influences here. It’s that classic set-up of the aging boss pressed on all sides and from below at the same time. Set up the box-set next to the DVD player, sit back and watch the peace explode.
If City of Bohane were just a highly cinematic novel of gang politics and violence in a fictionalised Ireland it might still be very good, but it probably wouldn’t be winning literary prizes. The reason it did is the language, which crackles.
Above De Valera Street the sun climbed and caught on each of the street’s high windows and each whited out and was blinded by the glare; each became a brilliant, unseeing eye. The light seemed to atomise the very air of the place. The air was rich, maritime, nutritious. It was as if you could reach up and grab a handful of the stuff. The evil-eyed gulls were antic on the air as they cawed and quarrelled and the street beneath them was thick with afternoon life.
Yes and here they came, all the big-armed women and all the low-sized butty fellas. Here came the sullen Polacks and the Back Trace crones. Here came the natty Africans and the big lunks of bog-spawn polis. Here came the pikey blow-ins and the washed-up Madagascars. Here came the women of the Rises down the 98 Steps to buy tabs and tights and mackerel – of such combinations was life in the flatblock circles sustained. Here came the Endeavour Avenue suits for a sconce at ruder life. The Smoketown tushies were between trick-cycles and had crossed the footbridge to take joe and cake in their gossiping covens. The Fancy-boy wannabes swanned about in their finery and tip-tapped a rhythm with their clicker’d heels. De Valera Street was where all converged, was where all trails tangled and knotted, and yes, here came Logan Hartnett in the afternoon swell. He was …
That’s a long quote, but I included it because it captures the cinematic (the defining word of this review) feel of the book. Like a David Simon series there’s little explanation here, the reader has to work out the language and the slang from context as they go along. Where are the Back Traces? What exactly is Smoketown? Where is Endeavour Avenue in relation to all this? None of it is explained, but then none of it needs to be because as you settle into the rhythms of Bohane it all starts to come together and after a while the slang of Bohane, like the slang of Baltimore, feels natural.
Let’s take another example. Here a secular prayer by the unnamed narrator:
Oh give us a grim Tuesday of December, with the hardwind taking schleps at our heads, and the rain coming slantways off that hideous fucking ocean, and the grapes nearly frozen off us, and dirty ice caked up top of the puddles, and we are not happy, exactly, but satisfied in our despair.
It is as though we can say …
D’ye see, now, what it is we are dealing with?
No wonder Irvine Welsh liked it.
The book thrums with beautiful turns of phrase, though beautiful isn’t quite the right word, perhaps resonant would be better. Take a sentence like “A pair of goons were arranged in violent lethargy by its stairwell entrance.” I love that use of “violent lethargy”. It sounds contradictory, but it’s no mere linguistic trick because I can picture exactly what he means: A brooding intent, a casual inherent violence ready to be unleashed at the smallest provocation.
At times Barry almost takes it too far. I noted this sentence: “Emptied wine sacks filled every gutter and diamonds of broken glass – Bohane gemstones – sparkled on the sidewalks.” At the time I read it I was impressed by the imagery. Reading it cold now it looks overblown and dangerously close to bathos, but in context it worked.
In Berlin Alexanderplatz Alfred Döblin used then contemporary cinematic techniques to inform his fiction (particularly montage). Barry does something similar. That first quote above is essentially a wide-angle take. Barry also makes frequent use of freeze-frame close-ups, particularly when describing clothing:
Wolfie wore: A neatly cut Crombie of confederate grey above green tweed peg pants, straight-legged, a starched white shirt, collar open to show a harlequin-patterned cravat, and a pair of tan-coloured arsekickers on the hooves that’d been imported from far Zagreb (them boys knew how to make a boot, was the Fancy’s reckon; if the Long Fella wasn’t walkin’ Portuguese, he was walkin’ Croat).
That’s fairly typical. When characters have been off-screen for a while, or something dramatic is about to happen, the action pauses and the text focuses in, describes in detail their clothes, boots, jewellery. Barry builds his world through accessories. What the characters wear is as important as what they do.
As you’d expect there’s some tremendous set-pieces. A gangland execution by Logan Hartnett is almost difficult to watch (sorry, read). A pitched battle between rival gangs is described entirely through photos being developed after the fact by a local journalist. The plot builds and thickens and as you get used to the characters in play Barry introduces a few more, each sharply drawn, so that by the end there’s a full and memorable cast.
The one drawback with Barry’s intensely cinematic world is that visual dramas tend to use shorthand, and shorthand tends towards stereotypes. People here are largely as you’d expect them to be. The Northside Rises are inhabited by semi-feral sink-estate dwellers straight out of a Daily Mail headline. The police are lunk-headed farmboys from the Irish interior. That’s all fine and works pretty well, but I was a little troubled by the “sand-pikeys”, a caricature of a traveller community straight out of a Mad Max movie speaking in cod-Jamaican patois and steeped in superstition and violence.
Ireland has a long history of discrimination against traveller communities, and “pikey” for those who don’t know it is a seriously offensive (and arguably racist) word. To have it used here for a group who seem to follow the stereotype is questionable, a little like a US novel featuring a group of casually violent but not very bright African-Americans. It’s not that you can’t do it, Chester Himes’ excellent Harlem Noir series has characters exactly like that (but not only like that). It’s just that when you put those characters in your book you are tapping in to some very unpleasant history and, potentially, prejudice.
Even with that potential sour note, this is still one of the freshest books I’ve read this year. It takes elements of SF, noir, and contemporary US drama and mixes them together as Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner back in the ’80s to create something new yet strangely familiar. I’ll end with one final quote:
A demon vision was to be seen come nightfall. From atop the high dunes, led by Prince Tubby, came a line four-dozen strong of sand-pikeys, and they were armed for Feudin’.
Carried hatchets and iron bars and lengths of ancient fender and blackthorn sticks soaked in brine for the hardness and bricks and shkelps and rocks and hammers and screwdrivers and they carried these items with a lovely … insouciance.
Fucker Burke and Logan Hartnett kept to the rear of the line.
Fucker carried a forlorn and puzzled air.
Logan carried a length of rope.
Oddly I’ve not seen much in the blogosphere. If you know of any please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, there’s a great review at the Guardian here though, and a fairly critical review from novelist Keith Ridgway in the Irish Times here.