City of mean streets and troubled minds
FICTION: KEITH RIDGWAYreviews City of BohaneBy Kevin Barry Jonathan Cape, 277pp. £11.99
THERE IS A SCENE in City of Bohanein which a boy who has been a bully is set upon by his erstwhile victim and a friend, and set alight. It’s a memorable scene. And it sticks in the mind not, as you might expect, for its violence – which is considerable – but because it’s funny. It’s actually very funny.
A trade-off is required to get laughs out of violence like this, and it involves a flattening out of character and a vivid realisation of a hyper-real, familiar but skewed context. A cartoon world in other words. It’s the only world in which a boy on fire can be a bit of a giggle. And Kevin Barry’s Bohane is a thoroughly well-realised cartoon world. Or graphic novel world, with pictures you create for yourself using the generous array of material Barry puts at your disposal.
This is Barry’s debut novel, and follows his excellent short-story collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, published by Stinging Fly Press in 2007. It’s not surprising that a novel might evoke other writers – and I was pleasantly reminded of Pat McCabe and Mike McCormack and Martin McDonagh, as well as Warren Ellis and Alan Moore. But it’s fun too to have yourself put in mind of a raft of other stuff. Plots and characters from Mad Maxand Gangs of New York, and the story songs of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits; atmosphere from Sergio Leone and Tarantino and Jack Yeats paintings. Mechanics from The Wireand Cormac McCarthy. Swagger from showband dance halls.
If a lot of these echoes seem of a kind, they are: this is a strongly filmic world, with short scenes and mean streets, blasted outbacks and ill winds, men with troubled minds and women with secrets, and a banished hero returning for what he thinks is his.
The setting is the west coast of Ireland, about 40 years into a future that seems impossible to trace back to our present. This is the future of some parallel Ireland, where there are no cars, no telephones, no computers, and Bohane is a small city in the grip of a gang known as the Fancy, led by the tall, pale, dapper Logan Hartnett. Hartnett’s dominance is threatened both internally and by the family gangs of the rises to the north of the city: the Norries (with clans including the MacNiece, the Kavanagh and the Heaney). His wife is cross-eyed and melancholy. His mother, Girly, lives on the top floor of the town’s hotel, clinging with a bony claw to life and power. His lieutenants include the murderous double act of Wolfie Stanners and Fucker Burke, and the jumpsuited Jeni Ching, who is lethal on several levels. His enemy is the returning Gant Broderick, described (far too often) as a “big unit”, who has a history as Hartnett’s predecessor in both love and war.
A conventional set-up then. What my blunt summary can’t convey is the richness of Barry’s writing, which draws you fully into the thick atmosphere and ticklish menace of easily the best-realised character in the book: the city of Bohane itself. Barry’s use of language is consistently fascinating. It often jars. Far closer to Boston than to Berlin, it indulges and revels in that small-town-gobshitery addiction to absurd movie Americanisms – “the Gant was a slugger of a young dude and smart as a hatful of snakes” – which made me groan at least as often as they made me laugh. But there are many instances where the language is beautiful, arresting, precise. As set-ups go this one is not at all surprising. But it’s impressively rendered, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had in letting it build.
Exposition is always the fun part. And, having got his pieces in place, it’s a disappointment that Barry seems to stand back and admire them rather than doing anything interesting. The characters remain thin and predictable: they deliver their lines and are shuffled around. The rising levels of excitement about various much-heralded showdowns are gently deflated by having the action occur off-stage and reported back, or by skipping over it completely. Plot twists are smuggled in as if Barry is a little embarrassed by them.
There is clear decision making in some of this: the reported action is often very skilfully done. In one great scene a collapsed messenger boy gasps out a description of terrible events to a pub full of frightened people. In another a riot is described by way of the photographs taken by a press photographer as he develops them in his darkroom. And there may be some tentative feint by Barry towards subverting his own rote storytelling, but if so it doesn’t register nearly as forcefully as it might. Ultimately there is a sense that Barry, having built a city detailed enough to get lost in, gets lost.
More than this, and more problematic for me, there are some choices Barry makes about his retrofitted future that are worrying. The gangs of Bohane are divided along fairly clear ethnic or tribal lines. Your allegiance is in your blood, as, apparently, is your character. The Norries are quick-tempered, maleable and stupid. They are a fairly easily manipulated mass. The Fancy are cunning and vicious, the natural leaders. And then there are the “sand-pikeys”. An animalistic, dope-smoking, dreadlocked group on the fringes of the town, they play an important role in the second half of the book. Any Irish reader in the UK (particularly any Irish Traveller) will raise an eyebrow at the use of the word pikey.
But, more than that, there is a general feeling in City Of Bohanethat we are eavesdropping on the stupidity and violence of a kind of underclass who are born to it. The “sand-pikeys”, for example, having been described before we meet them in purely derogatory terms, and later – and very explicitly – as being descendants of what we would recognise as a caricature of Travellers, live up to the reputation laid on them. They remain a gross sort of subhuman type. Among other variously predetermined types. If this was a badly written book, this might be a clumsy symptom of that. But it’s not a badly written book.
Barry’s Bohane is a compelling creation. But some of its foundations seem ugly to me, and for all its vivacity it remains oddly static, a city stuck in nostalgia, repeating itself. Which may be what Barry wants us to learn about it.
What I chiefly learned, though, was that sometimes the writing can be so much better than the book.
Keith Ridgway is the author of the novels Animals, The Partsand The Long Falling; he currently lives in Scotland