Kevin Barry’s debut novel takes place in a wild, bloodthirsty city on the west coast of Ireland, but good luck finding it on a map. Yes, the setting of City of Bohane is a product of its author’s imagination (Barry is Irish himself); then again, considering the kind of mayhem that takes place there, it’s just as well. You wouldn’t want to get within ten miles of the place anyway.
The year is 2053, and Bohane is in trouble. For years it’s been at the mercy of various gangs, the most recent of which being the Hartnett Fancy, led by the roguish and impeccably dressed Logan Hartnett. The police are ineffectual, and violence and crime run amok. As a result, the city has been reduced to its cracked and bleeding foundations, more a collection of duelling slums than a functioning municipality. But thanks to a few key Judases in the Fancy’s inner circle, big changes may be on the horizon.
One of the two major things City of Bohane has going for it is Barry’s shrewdly panoramic approach to the city itself. It’s become cliché to say that a novel’s setting feels like its own character, so better in this case to say an organism, or perhaps a patient, with Barry as the emergency-room physician taking its vitals. Bohane may not function in the governmental, law-and-order sense, but it does have its own organic checks and balances. The novel opens with a looming city-wide battle between the Hartnett Fancy and the rival Cusack gang that’s seen as not just inevitable, but necessary for the city’s survival—the same way that forests, in order to stay healthy, occasionally need to burn to the ground. It’s the circle of life.
The other thing in Barry’s corner is his ecstatic use of language, which fluidly combines Irish and Caribbean dialects, as well as a stylized, swaggering menace that’s equal parts Sin City and Gangs of New York. It’s a one of a kind voice, and its power verges on the symphonic. Plus, it acts as a much-needed positive counterbalance to the story’s perpetual vice grip of pain and suffering.
Violence and language are indeed the raisons d’être here. Barry’s novel is not one for three-dimensional characters, or the unpacking of social issues. He’s content to toss a bunch of stock noir characters—the overambitious lieutenant, the femme fatale, the wise old matriarch—into his Irish wasteland, then let them beat each other to a pulp.
Even though Bohane is treated like a lost cause by the rest of Ireland, the novel does engage, albeit obliquely, with the real-life Emerald Isle. One of Bohane’s main streets is named after the long-time politician Éamon de Valera, while its housing projects are named after a fleet of Irish poets. None of these is acknowledged directly, of course, and it’s unclear whether there’s a single Bohane resident who would understand the references anyway. I imagine students of Irish history and culture will spot dozens of other, more subtly buried winks and nudges along the way.
Where the book starts to lag, however, is once the focus shifts from the complex ecosystem of Bohane itself to the smaller, far more low-stakes love triangle between Logan, his wife, and the man Logan usurped to take over the Fancy in the first place. One character, planning a way to distract the citizenry from their recent bloodlust, sounds like he’s channelling the author when he says, “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?”
Check him I do—but I’d also point out that what distracts a mob of violent hoodlums may not work quite so well as the third act of a literary novel. Given the verve and kinetics that led the way, it’s too bad that City of Bohane ends on this note, going to great lengths to answer a question that nobody asked.
Graywolf, 288 pp, $25, hardcover
(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, May 20, 2012)