City of Bohane: A Novel
City of Bohane: A Novel
Kevin Barry
Graywolf Press, 2012
288 pp., $25.00

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Joseph Bottum

City of Bohane

A new Irish wordspinner to be reckoned with.

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As the story gathers steam, we learn that Logan is distracted from the future that ought to concern him, the rise of the young gangbangers, because he's been called back to the past, with the arrival of Broderick—"the Gant"—his old enemy and rival for Macu, returning to Bohane for the first time in 25 years. The Cusack family, up in the high-rises, has put up for decades with Logan's preeminence, but when one of their members is killed in Smoketown—"reefed," as the Bohanians say—they swear "a welt o' vengeance." Jenni tries to head off a fight, but Logan won't accept her advice. The return of the Gant has reminded of the old way of doing things, and he begins to hunger for a general bloodletting that will let off steam and ease the tensions of the city's many long-lingering feuds.

And so the war comes. The Cusacks and the "Norries" come piling down from the highrises. Girly's machinations issue in tragic results. The Sand-Pikeys from Big Nothin' join in, promised a cut of Smoketown's crime revenues. The Gant and the Long Fella head toward their showdown, Jenni ineffectually beats at the stone of catastrophe as it rolls toward town, and Sweet Baba Jay watches the inevitable end of the story begin to arrive.

Eyes Cusack, the leader of the high-rise gang, tries to explain how the death of a family member has upset everyone beyond the power of normal reconciliation to cure: "Me brud's gone loolah on accoun' and his missus gobbin' hoss trankillisers like they's penny sweets, y'check me?" Meanwhile, the narrator tries to explain what the dawn brings to Bohane: "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."

If you read for the sake of the writing—that kind of Irish writing that draws its power from the sheer brilliance of the words—then you have to love City of Bohane. Barry showed enormous promise with his 2007 story collection There Are Little Kingdoms (published in the United States in 2010), winning the Rooney prize for Irish Literature and rightly being dubbed by the Irish Times as "the most original writer to come out of this island in years." And now with City of Bohane, he's shown just how good he is, inventing not just a general new vernacular but refracting it like a rainbow into the different voices with which the different characters speak it. This is a Joycean level of language: playful and profound at the same time. Both unified and inflected. Fast as lightning and yet worth slow study.

If your interest, however, is in a new story—some deep novelistic account of the human condition and the manners and morals of the social order—then City of Bohane is not really worth your time. Watch Stuart Heisler's 1941 film Among the Living or Richard Fleischer's 1950 Armored Car Robbery. Robert Wise's 1947 Born to Kill, for that matter, or John Huston's 1950 The Asphalt Jungle. You'll get the same noir feeling, in the authentic era instead of a mythical future, and it won't take as long as reading City of Bohane.

In other words, the gloss of his writing is as shiny as new shellac, but it is not enough. When Kevin Barry finds a genuine topic to write about at novel length, a full novel's story to tell that isn't borrowed wholesale from B-movies, he is going to prove the best Irish writer since William Trevor. Until then, we have to survive with just City of Bohane.

Joseph Bottum is a writer in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author most recently of The Christmas Plains, coming from Image/Random House in October 2012.

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