Kevin Barry is the must-read Irish writer of the moment, and for good reason: his short stories feature the mad, the bad, and the dangerous to know, and his language is deliciously quotable and musical. I think of him as an Irish Coen Brother, writing dialogue so crisp and perfect you long for people to actually talk like that, even though you know that nobody really does.
City of Bohane has done nothing to dispel the cult growing up around its author. Barry’s recent triumph in capturing the Impac Award has capped a string of stellar reviews and ecstatic notices.
At its black, twisted heart, City of Bohane is a gangster noir. Set in an imaginary Irish city some 40 years in the future, City of Bohane tells the story of the struggle for control of a crime family. Logan Hartnett has control of the Hartnett Fancy, the gang who has been in control of the Bohane trace, the quarter containing all the dens of iniquity, and thus effective control of the city, for 25 years, an immense span of years in gangland. At the opening of the novel the first stirrings of gang warfare appears, as rival factions begin to agitate for more power. But as the feud plays out, the real power struggle emerges: which of Logan Hartnett’s deputies is going to succeed him?
The Ireland of Barry’s novel is one that has regressed into rule by local fixers, crime bosses who allow the veneer of society to function as long as the appropriate palms are greased. It’s an Ireland not hard to imagine in light of the country’s current machine politics, dynastic political families, and increasing levels of gangland violence.
Barry’s signature inventive language and vivid characters are on full display, and to these virtues he adds a confident world-building comparable to any first-rank science-fiction or fantasy author. However, over the course of the novel, it’s noticeable that there’s little character development — something that the brevity of a short story rarely allows. We have vivid characters, but they each do one thing well, rather than grow and change with experience. It’s a trait familiar from super-hero movies, where everything you need to know about a character can be seen on the poster.
Harnett is our aging mafia do: tall, immaculately tailored, suave, and striking. He may be getting long in the tooth, but he’s ruthless, and still fit to rumble. In a tight-fitting, white leather jacket, tight black pants, and high, sharp boots, we have Hartnett’s manipulative asian deputy, Jenny Ching. Equally ready to take out a rival with the knife, or use her body to gain an edge; she’s a Tarantino heroine transposed to the rain-soaked streets of the west of Ireland. Logan’s other deputies are tough-guy support roles, and would be played by former teen heart-throbs trying to establish their credentials as tough-guy leading men if this were a movie (and it would make a good one).
Barry uses cinematic effects throughout the novel, to generally good effect: scenes are set with birds-eye views, the camera floating overhead to describe the movement of crowds, the lay of the land, or the emotional state of a city about to erupt into violence. The antagonists’ clothes are described in lingering detail, sartorial choices being character in many cases. The affect is generally pleasing as spectacle, the mood of menace and inevitable showdown is built beautifully, until the violent denouement.
Here the cinematic influences of the novel fail to reach the same heights on paper as they can on-screen. Barry aims for a Godfather-esque finale of cutting between multiple scenes — there’s even a song that attempts to pull them all together — but the tension can’t be sustained in this way on paper, and truth-be-told, the outcome has long been certain by that point, so much of the hoped-for drama fails to materialize.
However, this over-reliance on cinematic devices does not lessen the novel’s joys or creativity in the slightest. Barry has proven he can sustain the mood and tone of his maddest stories at novel length, and hold the reader rapt. The intricacy of the world of Bohane, and its idiosyncratic dialect is fully realized, and never flags or fails to convince the reader. City of Bohane deserves all the plaudits and awards it’s earned. The most-apt comparisons for City of Bohane may be the fabulist world-building of China Miéville, rather than the usual suspects of Barry’s Irish literary forefathers. Kevin Barry continues to be a breath of fresh air through the Irish literary landscape, and City of Bohane will provide Irish writers and readers with much to argue over and much to champion.