A Rasp in the Air
By Kevin Barry
I met Kevin Barry once. He gave a lecture to the graduate students at Trinity. I remember him being shorter than me, compact, soft at the edges, but sharp as a tack. He just looked like a writer. He wore: pristine white tennis shoes, a gray sport coat, a white and blue-sectioned cotton shirt, fashionably-flimsy blue jeans, an air of unassuming sincerity. When he read us a selection from his first novel he read it with a theatrical flair, like a scoutmaster spinning a shadowy yarn to nervous twelve-year-olds miles from anything comforting. City of Bohane (pronounced “bō-hahn” I was corrected by an Irish friend) is that debut and a lush and ambitious follow up to his quirky yet tightly penned short story collection, There are Little Kingdoms.
You won’t find Bohane—the river, the city, or the peninsula—on any real map of western Ireland, but you very well might if that map were penciled out in the thin lines of an Irish child’s nightmare or the in the sweat-soaked opium-laced fever dream of an unsalvageable catchpenny sot. The novel, set sometime in the near future, is dark, dystopian, decadent, debaucherous, sinister, and raucous. It will surely be remembered as one of the most perversely romanticized of Irish settings.
Logan Hartnett has some problems in Bohane. He’s the “Albino,” the “Long Fellow,” or just the “’bino,” and he’s the dapper gangster what’s got the run of Smoketown, long considered the roughest part of the dark city of Bohane. He rules over his windy realm with the help of the thugs in his gang, the Hartnett Fancy, so named for their excessively fancy apparel. The mobsters are well cast. There is Wolfie Stanners and his co-conspirator Fucker Burke with his “unpredictable Alsatian bitch name of Angelina,” and there is Ol’ Boy Mannion, the septuagenarian go-between with the “clicker’d” high-top boots.
As if running the gang weren’t problem enough for Logan, a rival gang from across town, the Cusack mob or the “Norries” from the Northside Rises, is angling to move against the Hartnett Fancy. Logan’s wife, Macu (for Immaculata), is pressing him to quit the life, and his mother, Girly, has as much a hand in the running of Bohane as Logan himself. Then there are the advances, pivots, and deceptions of the young, beautiful Jenni Ching, armed with her cunning and “tiny lethal feet.” There is also word on the street that the big man Gant Broderick, a former rival both in business and in love, has returned to town from an exile on the boggy Big Nothin’ wasteland out beyond the borders of Bohane. Logan has a lot on his plate, y’sketchin’? The Gant is after his old flame, Macu. Logan is after keeping her and the Fancy and the running of Smoketown. And everyone is after offing Logan, and after the succession, and after the runnings of it all. They got hoss polis, sand-pikeys, hoors, Norries, and a dozen other types lurking in the shadows. In one of the many theatrical introductions of the work, the Gant Broderick materializes from the Big Nothin’ wastes:
The Gant took a slick of sweat off his brow with the back of a big hand. He had a pair of hands on him the size of Belfast sinks. The sweat was after coming out on him sudden. It was hot on the El train – its elderly heaters juddered like halfwits beneath the slat benches – and the flush of heat brought to him a change of feeling, also; the Gant was in a fever spell this season. The tang of stolen youth seeped up in his throat with the rasping burn of nausea and on the El train in yellow light the Gant trembled. But the familiar streets rushed past as the El train charged, and the pain of memory without warning gave way to joy – he was back! – and the Gant beamed then ecstatically as he sucked at the clammy air, and listened to the hoors.
It is beautiful prose and it is injected and shot through the entire novel. Difficulties arise, however, when you attempts to delineate the wafer thin plot, as most of what is in the book is scrupulous detail, the creation of the city, and the building up of almost imperceptible little actions into the inevitable, and predictable, climax. The story is a struggle for power in an otherwise wretched city. And there you have it. Barry has done well depicting that city and its characters, but he does little more than set the domino pieces and topple them over.
City of Bohane is fairly difficult to categorize. It is a crime novel a la Jim Thompson, if Jim Thompson wrote with a melodic brogue and lived in the land of Eire. Still, you might not know exactly where to shelve it in a bookstore: sci-fi, regular hum-drum fiction, fantasy? It’s tempting to label this dystopic narrative Steampunk because of the character’s exaggeratedly nostalgic manner of dress, the city-wide penchant for dirks and shivs over explosives and small arms, and the fact that, with the frequently noted exception of the elevated tram system, there seems to be no technology of any sort in a story supposedly set forty some odd years in the future. I spent an afternoon in a pub in Dublin discussing the matter with an Irish friend and Steampunk, however tempting, seemed to us both as less than accurate. Maybe Dieselpunk? Many would hesitate to add a new retro-futuristic type to the packed cupboard, as the list of derivatives is already full and vaguely ridiculous. We entertained the coinage of several that I refuse to tender here. That said, there will certainly be the inevitable comparisons of the language of City of Bohane to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and perhaps the city itself to the darkly dreamt sprawl of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. You can see certain similarities in this excerpt, a fine example of how Barry hard-etches this gross capital city of his brain:
In a small city so homicidal you needed to watch out on all sides. He moved on through the gloom of the Back Trace. The streets of old tenements are tight, steep-sided, ill-lit, and the high bluffs of the city give the Trace a closed-in feel. Our city is built along a run of these bluffs that bank and canyon the Bohane river. The streets tumble down to the river, it is a black and swift-moving rush at the base of almost every street, as black as the bog waters that feed it, and a couple of miles downstream the river rounds the last of the bluffs and there enters the murmurous ocean. The ocean is not directly seen from the city, but at all times there is the ozone rumor of its proximity, a rasp in the air, like a hoarseness. It is all of it as bleak as only the West of Ireland can be.
That it demands comparison is one of the initial problems I had with the work. Kevin Barry offers his readers nothing really new but plies them with the atmospheric clichés and stock characters that one might expect out of any fictional gotham. Here is the dark town on the edge of the wilds, bereft of conscience, chock full of bad things and bad people. Here are the romanticized criminals who seemingly act with impunity and whose only motivations appear to be greed and fear and hate.
The creative tendency to borrow has become too familiar in recent years. Bouncing around on a Saturday night, geared up on trucker speed or coke, hormones and dubstep, one can find in contemporary dance clubs little more than mash-ups of samples from far greater, established works—that’s what I found in City of Bohane. It seems to me that one of the biggest flaws of postmodern novels such as these, or those that aim to claim a standing in the postmodern canon, is an essential capitulation to the erroneous idea that whatever it is, it’s been done before. If good writers steal, as the saying goes, then postmodern writers borrow or sample or cite. The crooks in City of Bohane might have been pulled directly from Burgess or Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York. The city itself is a mixture, if a well-articulated one, of facsimiles of cities gone awry. Francie from Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy might feel at home there, or at least at ease. In the opening chapters of the book there is even a moment in the Aliados, the bar frequented by Logan Hartnett and his Fancy that could have been ripped directly from a Mario Puzo novel:
Now the custom at the Aliados, afternoons, was that mendicants would take a high stool at the bar and there they would wait precisely in turn for their brief audience with Logan. That an audience could begin was signaled by the slightest raising of the pale Hartnett eyebrows. This afternoon was a quiet one – just a couple of men waited. Logan signalled that the first of them might now approach, and it was the whippet-thin butcher Ger Reid who came dolefully across the tiled floor.
A reload of The Godfather, it is a scene that could very well have been intended as homage, but comes off as simply a sampled riff, one of many thematic samples that make up Kevin Barry’s first novel. All that’s missing is Tom Hagen…
The butcher’s head dipped, and tears raced down his cheeks, and they fell towards the zinc top of the table, but Logan one by one caught them as they fell.
‘So where the polis be sticking the old beak, eh?’
‘I hear what you’re sayin’ to me, Mr Hartnett.’
‘It’ll be taken care of, Gerard. You can trust me on that. Now go back to your work and put this out of your mind like a good man, d’you hear?’
‘It’s hard Mr Hartnett.’
‘I know it’s hard, Gerard. Or I can imagine so.’
‘Thanks, Mr H.’
The butcher rose to go.
‘Of course, Ger, you know that I’ll be back to you in due course?’
‘I know that.’
‘Favour done’s a favour answered, Gerard.’
‘Yes Mr Hartnett, sir.’
In such a way in the city was a man’s fate decided.
Enter Luca Brasi and don’t forget the cannolis. It may as well include a citation that might in itself be a nod to David Foster Wallace or Nabokov, take your pick, etcetera, ad pedantry, ad nauseum.
Barry has drawn up a group of caricatures based on archetypes developed over the decades in literature and Hollywood movies. While many of these caricatures would do well entertaining a den of pimple-faced losers (an organization of people with which I proudly count myself a former member) armed with 3d6, the latest Shadowrun player handbook, a pocket full of angst, and a fervent desire to escape the harsh realities of adolescence, the characters can do little but perform those actions expected of their type.
Those characters show very little development. Fucker and Wolfie are thugs who commit murder for their boss, and really not much else. That is their role in the city, this is the action that characters of this type will do, must do. Considering the author’s engorged descriptive ability, it becomes ultimately frustrating that there is no change in many of the characters beside the binary switch of “now you see them…,” now they’re dead. Jenni Chang has machinations (as pretty much all of the characters do) to be top of the tip, and she has just the absence of conscience requisite to accomplish this goal. That does not change. Nothing atomic, nothing essential about her changes. She is always the consummate rake.
What is special about City of Bohane is the craftsmanship of the prose. Barry has crafted a milieu, if one pieced together from other established milieux, that will no doubt have young Irish literati henceforth dressing up every year as their favorite character on August 13th, the night of the August Fair, an event in the story wherein the plot culminates and the gang violence finally erupts. A Bloomsday for Generation @.
These fans will have no problem piecing together the requisite August Fair costumes, as Mr. Barry does not introduce a character in the novel without a detailed paragraph depicting their exact attire.
Silver high-top boots, drainpipe strides in a natty-boy mottle, a low-slung dirk belt and a three-quarter jacket of saffron-dyed sheepskin. He was tall and straggly as an invasive weed. He was astonishingly sentimental and as violent again. His belligerent green eyes were strange flowers indeed. He was seventeen years of age and he read magical significance into occurrences of the number nine. He had ambition deep inside but could hardly even name it. His true love: an unpredictable Alsatian bitch name of Angelina.
Black patent high tops, tight bleached denims with a matcher of a waistcoat, a high dirk belt, and a navy Crombie with black velvet collar. Wolfie was low-sized, compact, ginger, and thrummed with dense energies. He had a blackbird’s poppy-eyed stare, thyroidal, and if his brow was no more than an inch deep, it was packed with an alley rat’s cunning. He was seventeen also and betrayed, sometimes, by odd sentiments under moonlight. He wanted to own entirely the city of Bohane.
And, while elegantly delivered, these portrayals become heavy-handed, to the point that the novel often reads as directorial notes, a novel-length treatment for the movie that Mr. Barry seemingly has in mind. The descriptions are so prevalent within the novel as to become almost a nervous tic:
Ol’ Boy wore:
A three-piece skinny-dude suit in the classic mottled-green shade, a pair of silver-painted jack boots (square-toed) on the dancers, and a dove-grey stovepipe hat up top, leaning westerly, with a delicate length of crimson scarf tied around it.
In the end, the author must be aware of it. I spent a chunk of time trying to wrap my slow noodle around the conceit. There is the possibility that these frequent descriptions are trying to tell us something about the association between street violence or any violence and fashion. For a moment there I thought I was onto something, but then there is little suggested to the reader to make the descriptions anything other than window dressing. Personally, I am not willing to make such analytical leaps without a wisp more of a prompt.
As exemplified in the previous excerpt regarding the specific attire of young Wolfie Spanners and Fucker Burke, the over-hyphenation in Barry’s prose at times became over-distracting. And to my mind, it also allowed for some of the poorest sentence constructions in the novel: his litanies of “He had,” “He was,” and “He wore,” and the numerous other lists.
The city’s denizens speak in heavily apostrophe’d vernacular. In and of itself, this should not pose the reader much of a problem. If anything, it grounds the work well within the street-wise setting and was skillfully kept up and under control throughout the work (it’s apt that Barry received a blurb from Irvine Welsh). While I very much enjoy such true to life techniques, I did, however, find it highly beneficial to have a dictionary close at hand.
While the vernacular voice of the narrator is almost as littered with the argot of the streets as that of the characters themselves, it is – for the most part – still an effective technique at integrating every scene into the sooty city of Bohane. Yet, that same narrative voice might leave closer readers wanting, bogged down with a very reasonable and not entirely inconsequential question: just who is speaking here? The little-identified narrator, the omniscient lowlife, like God as a townie, should work for some. Most might shrug it off like so many of an author’s other narrative tricks. I consider it an essential flaw in the aggregate, an underdeveloped component that weakens my affection for the whole.
One of my favorite professors frequently insisted that if someone wished to make a living reviewing literature, he must never review a book that he could not recommend. I will say that I have many friends who would love this novel, many that will disagree with this review, whose opinions I greatly value. I would beg them to read it and encourage them to disagree. Let’s discuss it. I think City of Bohane is worth the read even though, to my mind, it’s an unfinished novel. It is a gorgeously rendered system of very well painted scenes dangling in that harsh wind blowing in off the Bohane river and the Big Nothin’ wastes beyond. Kevin Barry has pieced together a collection of richly articulated canvases and, unfortunately, delicately pinned them to a strained and flimsy narrative frame. It is worth the read for the very reason that it will welcome discussion and even argument.
The prose is dense and is nearly enough to sustain the reader regardless of the faults. Sometimes, it is just good writing. Other times, it may garner a few winces and likely a whinge or two, but it should be obvious to most that there has been great care in the crafting of each sentence, paragraph, page, and chapter. And that is no small thing. At best, the novel should find a cult following amongst my beloved brethren of subculture misfits (getting optioned for a film should go far to benefit this possibility). At worst, it will stagnate outside the canon as merely a well-written graphic novel without an illustrator. Ultimately, the best-developed character in the book is the city itself. Considering this, the title at least is apt.
T. Mazzara was born in Virginia, raised in North Carolina, and went to school at Trinity College Dublin.