Kevin Barry, a king of the language kingdoms

In person, Kevin Barry is as exuberant and sharp as his prose – and his Impac for ‘City of Bohane’ confirms he is a true literary original

Fri, Jun 7, 2013, 06:56

As quick-witted as a stand-up comic and as serious as the best of them tend to be, Kevin Barry is not only an inspired blend of Flann O’Brien and Anthony Burgess, he is an original.

Barry’s artistic vision is concerned with the exploration of language. “It’s about the sound, the rhythm of it; a sentence has to sound right.” Fiction, he says, is about great sentences. Language carried off this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award last night, as Barry’s virtuosic west of Ireland western deservedly won.

Of course he is delighted, yet Barry, for all his good humour, is an impressively deliberate speaker. He has no interest in small talk and less in autobiographical asides, although he responds to mention of his patriotic name: “It’s loaded.”

He was born in Limerick city and conducted much of what he describes as a misspent youth in Cork. The language of working-class Limerick and Cork excites him, and has influenced his writing.

“I think the language as spoken in Limerick and Cork has not really been written; City of Bohane is a combination of the two. Bohane is a little kingdom. When I began writing it, I realised that it was in the future and that it was a place that didn’t care about anything that happened outside it.”

Barry, who appeared to have arrived into the world as a fully formed writer with the publication by Declan Meade’s wonderful Stinging Fly imprint of There Are Little Kingdoms in 2007, in fact served a long literary apprenticeship. “I was freelancing for years in Cork and around. I also wrote freelance pieces for The Irish Times.”

The path of print
Perhaps because of his cheeky face and his artful dodger demeanour, it is easy to forget that Barry will be 44 in a few weeks. He spent his 20s and part of his 30s wanting to write full-time.

Fate took over when he sent a couple of stories to Meade, who announced, in his quiet way, that if Barry had a few more, they might be able to get a book out – Meade should get a Nobel Prize for his critical perception.

There is exuberance about Barry’s prose; it is very funny and visual. “I have been as influenced by music and films as by books,” he says. There are no prizes for suggesting that he loves Westerns. He laughs as he says he thinks his owes a huge debt to the television series Deadwood. “I love it and the way it’s written in this weird Elizabethan English.”

When we speak, it is late at night and Barry has been doing interviews since 8am; the last thing he wants is to do another one. He sounds like an empty cup, but mention books and Barry becomes animated and passionate.

He recalls his love for Saul Bellow and describes his own early ambition of wanting to be the great Irish Jewish writer; he praises Bellow as “a tremendous writer of sentences”. When I mention I met him, Barry’s likeable envy conveys such warmth. Be warned: Kevin Barry is impossible to interview, because it makes so much more sense to just let him speak his individual argot of courtly lyricism.

A full-blown, tragic opera
For all its brilliant comedy, fantastical images and echoes in its linguistic daring of A Clockwork Orange, City of Bohane is actually an opera, a full-blown tragic love story.

The Gant returns after an absence of many years: “The tang of stolen youth seeped up in his throat with the rasping burn of nausea . . . ” He is drawn by the lingering memory of his early love for Macu, long married to his rival, Logan Hartnett. The Gant’s quest is reminiscent of Gatsby’s equally doomed journey.

“Yes, it is a love story,” Barry agrees, and he says that he was most struck by this when he recorded the book. “I could feel the emotion of those passages.” There is a touch of West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet about it. “I’m a romantic,” he says. There is a sense of a gun fight about the novel; Barry’s quicksilver mind takes up the theme. “You have the guy in the black suit who has been running the show, and you have the guy in the white suit who has come back to town, and in the middle, there is the woman.”

This is all true, but there is also the vibrant madness and tribal energy of Bohane, a place wonderfully free of gadgets; there are mobile phones and emails. People still write letters and boy do they talk. “I’m not interested in technology,” says Barry, who has only recently learned to drive.

Shortlisted for the 2011 Costa First Novel award, which it should have won, City of Bohane has already made its mark, and has now won a major prize. Yet Barry, writer of short stories and a novel, is currently writing a screenplay about horse racing: “I know nothing about horse racing, but I love its language. I am always excited by the way each little kingdom has its own language.”

Writing, for him, is a pleasure. “I like to be happy when I’m writing. If not, then how will the reader manage?” The limitless possibilities of language as a visual medium has both seduced and shaped him. “It frees me from feeling any debt to the actual, and that’s a good thing.”