City of Bohane: A Novel
Graywolf Press, 2012
288 pp., $25.00
City of Bohane
There's a kind of Irish writing that's all about the myth of Ireland. Think—well, think of James Joyce's Ulysses, of course. But it was around in light form back in Somerville and Ross's 1899 Some Experiences of an Irish RM, and it has lasted well past the short-story writer's Sean ó Faoláin's death in 1991.
And there's another kind of Irish writing, a different thing, which is all about the words. Supremely that's Finnegans Wake, of course. Yeats was a wonder, a star come from County Sligo to ornament Irish literature, and all honor to him. But Joyce—Joyce is inescapable. He lies across Ireland like a bog from the Western Shores all the way to the Irish Sea, and every Irish writer has to cross him, one way or another. Flann O'Brien's 1939 At Swim-Two-Birds is a good example of that word-obsessed Irish writing, and so, in its way, is City of Bohane, Kevin Barry's first novel.
Down at Tommie's bar, Barry writes, "Ceiling fans whirred noirishly against the night, and were stoical, somehow, like the old uncles of the place, all raspy and emphysemic." Meanwhile the character Ol' Boy struts across town, wearing "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."
And in the midst of it all, a war is brewing in Bohane, with the gangs from the high-rises ready to sweep down on the central neighborhood of Smoketown. As the 17-year-old Jenni Ching tries to warn Logan Hartnett—the old leader of the Fancy, the gang that runs the city—"Cusacks gonna C 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."
It's great writing, all of it—but, then, City of Bohane pretty much has to be about the writing: the different voices the characters use, the narrator's strangely distant observations. Good as the writing is, the plot is as conventional as a 1940s B-movie. The plot is a 1940s B-movie, as far as that goes: For all that City of Bohane is set in a mysterious Irish city in the year 2053, Barry uses the futuristic setting to throw Ireland back to 1940s America as Hollywood's imagined it. No cellphones exist in 2053 Ireland. No computers. No cars, for that matter. The gangsters come into Smoketown and the Big Nothin' by tram and train, and they write paper letters when they need to communicate to one another their insults and challenges. Ireland itself might as well not exist in the novel, although Barry plays that part of the narrative with a light hand and a delicate irony. De Valera, for example, is the main drag of the town, and gets its name from the Irish leader Eamon De Valera. The housing projects are named after the Irish poets Louis MacNeice, Patrick Kavanagh, and Seamus Heaney. But if the people of Bohane know the origin of those names, they never mention them. The tarmac path from the Heaney Highrises down to the De Valera road is as meaningless as the intersection of Main and First Street in a Hollywood gangster film.
As violent, too, as a gangster film. As the story opens, Logan Harnett has been in control of a gang known as the Harnett Fancy for 25 years. "The Long Fella," as he's sometimes known. Or "H" or "the Albino" or just "the 'Bino": The townsfolk have a wariness—a fear, perhaps, that naming calls—about actually speaking his name aloud, and they routinely refer to him with the kind of circumlocutions that older generations of the Irish would use for banshees and the dangerous Little Folk of the Daoine Sídhe. From Smoketown—all "hoors, herb, fetish parlours, grog pits, needle alleys, dream salons, and Chinese restaurants"—to the mazes of Back Trace, the Hartnett Fancy has prospered by running the most lucrative sections of crime-ridden Bohane. And all of it has surely been due to the leadership of Logan: tall and lanky and elaborately dressed.
In short order, reading City of Bohane, we meet the novel's other characters. Logan's wife, for instance: Macu, short for Immaculata, a Spanish semi-beauty with a cocked eye, now 43 years old, childless, and wondering what's left of her life. And Logan's mother, a monstrous manipulator and willful ruiner of lives from her perch (thanks to Logan's money) in the honeymoon suite at the Bohane Arms hotel; perhaps everything one needs to know about her is contained in the fact that she's almost ninety-year-old and still named "Girly."
Meanwhile, Logan's underemployed henchmen, the boys of the Fancy, sit obliviously in their cafés eating pumpkin seeds, while the young Jenni Ching and Wolfie Stanners try unsuccessfully to warn Logan—to warn anyone who will listen—that Bohane is about to explode, the new generation of gangsters from the high-rises unwilling to accept any longer the dominance of the Fancy. Ol' Man Mannion, the elderly pawnbroker who seems to have a finger in every pie, has a sense of dread, as does the strange character of Sweet Baba Jay, a Christ-figure who watches everything in town but never intervenes.