Scarlett Thomas, review of City of Bohane by Kevin Barry, in The Guardian (14 May 2011)

Details: Scarlett Thomas, review of City of Bohane by Kevin Barry, in The Guardian (14 May 2011) - available online; accessed 21.11.2012.

Logan Hartnett – aka “The Long Fella”, “H”, “the Albino”, or sometimes just “the ’Bino” – gaunt, stylish and with great taste in shoes, has run the Hartnett Fancy for the last 25 years. The year is 2053 and we are in the west of Ireland. The Hartnett Fancy controls most of what’s worth controlling in the City of Bohane, from the labyrinthine Back Trace to Smoketown. (“Smoketown was hoors, herb, fetish parlours, grog pits, needle alleys, dream salons and Chinese restaurants.”)

Logan has a wife, Macu (short for Immaculata), and lives in a Beauvista “manse”. His mother, Girly, about to turn 90, lives in the honeymoon suite of the Bohane Arms hotel. Logan’s Fancy boys sit around the Aliados cafe, reading fashion magazines and eating pumpkin seeds. There are three rising stars, all 17 years old. Jenni Ching is thin, cool, fashion-forward, and in charge of the Ho Pee Ching Oh-Kay Koffee Shoppe since her mother threw herself in the Bohane river. Wolfie Stanners is ambitious, and in love with Jenni. Fucker Burke’s true love is “an unpredictable Alsatian bitch name of Angelina”. Then there’s “the Gant” Broderick, Logan’s nemesis, back in town after 25 years. And at the centre of everything is always Ol’ Man Mannion, brokering every deal going. Watching over the town, benevolently, perhaps, is Sweet Baba Jay, aka SBJ. (He’s the one who died on the cross for us all.)

The main action starts when news reaches Logan that one of the Cusack family from the Northside Rises has been “reefed” in Smoketown. As Jenni puts it: “Cusacks gonna sulk up a welt o’ vengeance by ’n’ by and if yer askin’ me, like? A rake o’ them tossers bullin’ down off the Rises is the las’ thing Smoketown need.”

But Logan disagrees, and so a written notice of an official feud is delivered to Eyes Cusack. Only then do the “Norries” indeed come down off the rises, and all hell breaks loose. With some Sand-pikeys from Big Nothin’ as reinforcements (and with a cut of Smoketown promised to them), can the Hartnett Fancy keep control of their territories?

Kevin Barry is a great storyteller, and the twists and turns of City of Bohane are satisfying, if, in places, familiar (all gangland narratives seem compelled to have the same dreary combination of over-sentimentality and violence). But as Ol’ Boy Mannion says at one point, “Bohane City don’t always gots to be a gang-fight story. We can give ’em a good aul tangle o’ romance an’ all, y’check me?” And romance there is. Fashion, too. On the evening of the Feud, Jenni turns up in an all-in-one black jumpsuit, and Wolfie is “dressed to kill in an electric-blue ska suit and white vinyl brothel-creepers with steel toecaps inlaid”.

One of the best outfits in the book belongs to Ol’ Boy, as he strides out across Big Nothin’. He wears “High-top boots expensively clicker’d with gold taps, a pair of hip-hugging jodhpur-style pants in a faded mauve tone, an amount of gold chains, a heavy mink coat to keep out the worst of the hardwind’s assaults and a goatskin beanie hat set pavee-style at the crown of his head.”

There is something quaint and old-fashioned about this, of course. One of the most intriguing things about City of Bohane – and Barry underplays this beautifully – is its lack of technology. No one in this novel has a cellphone or a computer. There are no cars to keep people from the hard wind. Everyone goes everywhere – even into Big Nothin’ – on foot (in very fancy boots), or by train or tram. People get reefed rather than shot, and listen to music on wind-up radios. They send each other letters. It seems that the future is now as good a place for nostalgia as the past.

Barry’s vernacular, like his plot, is a wonderful blend of past, present and imagined future. He doesn’t overdo it. His characters all have different voices, and his free indirect style changes as it moves across the city. Sometimes the words are doing backflips and spinning on their heads. Sometimes they are just watching. At Tommie’s bar, we learn that “Ceiling fans whirred noirishly against the night, and were stoical, somehow, like the old uncles of the place, all raspy and emphysemic.”

At one point, we’re hearing from Eyes Cusack that “Me brud’s gone loolah on accoun’ and his missus gobbin’ hoss trankillisers like they’s penny fuckin’ sweets, y’check me?” Then we’re back in the semi-mythical Big Nothin’, where “Solstice broke and sent its pale light across the Big Nothin’ bogs. A half-woken stoat peeped scaredly from its lair in a drystone wall and a skinny old doe stood alert and watchful on a limestone outcrop.” That Barry has control over all these registers, and makes them his own, is quite astonishing. This debut marks him out as a writer of great promise.

[ close ] [ top ]