Demented little words

 

If, as some critics tell us, the past is an obsession among Irish writers, then Kevin Barry has well and truly broken that mould with his Impac award-winning novel “City of Bohane”. His triumph in winning this international prize is further validation of a talent that, from his earliest short stories, distinguished itself in the arena of contemporary Irish fiction.

Barry’s 2007 debut collection “There Are Little Kingdoms”, heralded the arrival of a unique, off-beat voice and an author guaranteed to deliver tales of the unexpected. It signalled, too, a freshness of approach to timeworn themes of the Irish short story.

The Gothic shadowland of the Big Nothin, The Rises and Somketown that Barry has created in “City of Bohane” has very recognisable qualities for those familiar with small-town Ireland. His De Valera Street may be a central location but there are no comely maidens dancing at the crossroads in this terrifically imagined, often grotesquely violent, futuristic novel.

Barry, a self-confessed movie aficionado and fan of the noir novel, has learned his tricks as much from those genres as from literary precursors such as Flann O’Brien and the Latin American Magic Realists. While he knows his pulp fiction and TV crime shows, he also nods in the direction of J M Synge, subverting the playwright’s west of Ireland landscape into a post-apocalyptic playground of tribal war.

To win this prestigious €100,000 award is an impressive achievement, especially against some illustrious fellow contenders. The award, administered by Dublin City Public Libraries since 1996, has a distinguished list of past winners, including Nobel laureates. That he now joins two previous Irish winners is a tribute to the state of Irish fiction.

Yeats said he made poetry “out of a mouthful of air”, Kevin Barry has shaped his language out of the “demented little words” that came to him on “the wynds of the Trace”. This year’s award, regrettably, is the Impac swansong – hopefully another sponsor will recognise its value – but Kevin Barry will sing on.