Patrols of the imagination


Kevin Barry made his name through excellent short stories, and his debut novel comes with high expectations and heavyweight recommendations. He tells KEITH DUGGANwhy he can laugh at the
deadly serious business of writing

KEVIN BARRY says the name came to him in a dream: that he jumped out of his slumbers and declared that the city he was writing about was called Bohane. He began sketching the place out while on holidays in Porto. “I hate vacationing,” he says in a mock Yank accent. “I dunno, I just get cranky and restless.” So he used the Portuguese city as a model for his West of Ireland ramshackle hellhole populated with murderous lovelorn thugs; with a dandified godfather named Logan Hartnett and Girly, his 90-year-old mother; with a lecherous newspaper editor named Big Dom Gleeson; with the fearless heartbreaker Jennie Ching.

In Bohane, unfortunates live in flatblocks called the McNiece or the Heaney and the town has places called Smoketown, Back Trace and, for the socialites of this demimonde, Beauvista. “Like the football club,” Barry grins.

City of Bohane, his debut novel, comes decorated with glittering recommendations. It is set sometime in the early 2050s in a technological wasteland; people smoke dream pipes to return to the “lost time”, rival gangs arrange brawls, youngsters get “reefed” or end up as sex slaves and sentimentalists play calypso music on old 78 turntables.

“I spent a long time wondering what they would be listening to,” Barry says in the living room of his house, a converted barracks in the south Sligo village of Ballinafad. The house is an on-going project: on this disconcertingly hot spring day, a man is tossing a wall out the back and Barry’s partner, Olivia, is painting some interior walls.

The couple fell in love with the place five minutes after they clapped eyes on it. Originally an RIC barracks from the mid-1800s, like all former strongholds of the Empire it was built to last, with walls as thick as tree trunks. The Irish State standard-issue stove has been replaced, but not discarded, and the central heating system is due for installation any day now. “A big moment,” Barry says solemnly, recalling the extreme nights visited upon them during the December freeze, when it was minus 20 outside and the house felt like a cryogenic chamber. As he gives a whirlwind tour of the place, he obligingly resurrects a vision of the barracks during its time housing the gardaí of Ballinafad. “I reckon the hatch was there,” he says, nodding at a deep-set book shelf. Pointing to a row of doors fronting a stone shed at the back – “I’d say one or two lads had a rough night in there” – he gives a puckish grin and makes some coffee.

That Barry, a quintessential Limerick kid, has chosen to live in a barracks draws inevitable comparison with the most famous literary barracks of the northwest, the childhood home in Cootehall of the late John McGahern. “Yeah, I think the buildings are very similar,” Barry says. When he and Olivia returned to Ireland from Liverpool in 2006 during the absurd housing bubble, they headed for Leitrim on the logic – or rumour – that houses were cheaper. “Then we saw this place.”

McGahern often referred to the phantom excursions gardaí stationed in Cootehall would concoct, detailing tours of the area that never took place.

“Patrols of the imagination,” McGahern called them and the phrase comes to mind now as Barry describes how he dreamt Bohane and its riotous, violent cast into being here, in this former house of law and order.

The Gant, one of the principals in the book, came to Barry fully formed, as if he had walked into the barracks. “Sounds sort of melodramatic but I almost saw him there,” Barry says, pointing to the kitchen door. In the opening pages, the Gant hears “a snatch of a lost-time song” and for the remainder of the novel, he seems caught between the city he had left decades earlier and the seething place he is returning to. Music, Barry explains, was critical to how the story was framed.

“I wrote this one line, basically that the days of disco were long gone in Bohane. And this was very liberating: it was very important to me because it meant that I could invent at will. I suppose I was writing about an alternative universe – similar to ours, but different. And I didn’t know that it was set in the future until then. So yeah, there is this ‘lost time’ – this oily pool of blackness. But the Bohanian people do have the Irish psyche where they are completely trapped in the past.”

But what past? The fiction of Kevin Barry brushes against a past that is only vaguely recognisable. He seemed to come out of nowhere when Stinging Fly published There Are Little Kingdomsin 2007, 13 stories about characters ranging from a gigantic taxi driver with psychic intuition to a stressed-out genie.

The first, Atlantic Cityis transcendent and, Barry admits, probably his favourite. It is the story of a few hours in a small-town pool hall on “a July evening, after a tar-melter of a day” where Jamesie, the undisputed king of the arcade games and the pool table is holding court.

Barry says the place was based on a typical arcade shebeen across from the Christian Brothers’ school on Sexton Street, in Limerick transposed to an imaginative small town. He grew up in the suburbs of the city in a house that wasn’t especially bookish – “The Irish Pressand loads of jockey biographies” – but Barry was a voracious reader and singles one day when, off sick from school aged about 11, he picked up his sister’s school copy of Wuthering Heightsand was sucked into another world.

He has lived in Cork, Galway and several English cities, counting 17 addresses in a recent essay he wrote on the theme of home for the Observer. He worked in journalism for a few years, including an off-beat column for the Irish Examiner, but abandoned that to live in a caravan outside Cork, where he spent five months writing a “terrible novel”. He began writing stories in 1998 when, during his first trip to America, he noticed all these short story journals and realised there was a market for them. His instinct and flair for the form was immediately apparent and his most recent success was the appearance Fjord of Killaryin the New Yorker. “It was nice and they have published really prestigious people down the years,” he says of that debut. “But it just means readers. Normally, you write a story and it appears somewhere and it is read by you and 10 other short story writers. That magazine sells over a million copies. So it was nice to get a few letters about the story. I am interested in having readers! I am not shy about that. I am determined to keep a house of ill repute and show them a good time when they come in.”

He actually finished City of Bohane18 months ago and wrote it at a clipping pace over three months. Barry is 41 now and describes his adolescence as “the typical sitting under the bridge, drinking and thinking ‘only Morrissey understands me’. But I am one of the unfortunates for whom that persists. You never get over it.”

His early stabs at writing, he says, were post-nightclub and angsty. “Brilliant that night . . . not so hot the next morning.

“The thing is, I can laugh but I’m f**kin’ deathly serious about it, you know? I am quite laidback and easygoing in other realms of my life. But I feel awful and miserable if I am not writing. And if it is going well, there is nothing like it. It took me a long time to discover that I should be having fun doing it as well. In your 20s, you are ripping your hair and pacing up and down. So with Bohane I just had fun and wrote it quite quickly. What I like to write most is dialogue. I think my work comes in at the ear. It is aurally based.”

City of Bohanewill be published with unusually loud advance trumpeting, because of the startling promise of the short stories. In the impatient world of publishing, that brings its own pressure. Publishing houses passed on a novel Barry had written after his short stories, opting to wait for his next offering.

This is it.

A few early reviews have been mixed but it may be that Barry did not set out to write a conventional literary novel. Whatever one’s opinion, it has unquestionably avoided dullness. Music, graphic novels, comics, television dialogue and street talk: these are the influences that turn Barry’s head as quickly as his heroes in traditional fiction. And, of course, he still relies on the oldest influence: people that he meets. He is constantly charmed by the difference between the antic, 100 mile-an-hour speaking style of his native Munster and the laconic deadpanning of his neighbours in the northwest. He has any store of anecdotes, such as meeting an old man in Boyle and having what Barry believed to be a very sad conversation about the plight of emigration. “Then the old man says to me, ‘Course, the f**kers have Australia destroyed.’” He roars laughing at this.

He will launch the book in Galway in a fortnight, and happily acknowledges that he can’t wait to read his work in the voices of his delightful fiends in Bohane. “Richard Harris said that all Limerick men are hams by nature and he wasn’t wrong.”

The sun dips at the front door and it is suddenly a nippy March evening. Kevin Barry stands in the doorway and offers a big salute of farewell, like many a sergeant before him.

Kevin Barry launches City of Bohaneat the Cúirt Festival of Literature on Friday, April 15th at Druid Lane, Galway.

City of Bohaneis reviewed in tomorrow’s Weekend Review