2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize winner: Kevin Barry, City of Bohane (2011)

June 3rd, 2013 § 1 comment

It may sound trite, but language is the linchpin upon which all elements of a story depend for their structure.  Without appropriate language, even the most elegantly-plotted tales can end up as flat as a soda bottle left open for a week before anyone sips from it.  Language is intricately tied up in prose, yet it inhabits more media than just prose.  The musicality of the words, the lilt and tilt of phrases, these can make the reader think of music or poetry even when the words are printed and there is no discernible rhyme nor line pattern.  Great language makes even the most clichéd works enjoyable to read because there is something beautiful being told that entrances us.  Our oldest recorded stories depended heavily upon the spoken language and its tones and rhythms to aid the stories being told; many listeners knew the basics, but a skilled troubadour added nuances of voice and inflection to the tale that made all things new again.

The basic premise of Irish writer Kevin Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, should be familiar to those who’ve read many (or any?) stories of love triangles and of the romances of gangsters.  The plot of a feared/respected gang leader and his quarter-century hold on the fictional western Irish city of Bohane seeming to slip due to the intrusion of a new rival gang, not to mention this “Fancy’s” apprehensions regarding his beautiful wife, is a solidly-constructed tale but it is nothing special by itself.  These sorts of tales, whether you read (or watched) The Gangs of New York or other stories of its ilk, are commonplace in recent literature.

Yet City of Bohane mostly transcends these generic elements.  This is one of the most evocative, “beautiful” novels that have been published in recent years.  Barry has such an ear for dialogue that his reproduction of working-class Hibernian English feels alive, full of vitality and teeming with imminent violence.  Take for instance this passage from the beginning chapter:

Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river.  No argument:  the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river.  This is the Bohane river we’re talking about.  A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it:  city of Bohane.

He walked the docks and breathed in the sweet badness of the river.  It was past midnight on the Bohane front.  There was an evenness to his footfall, a slow calm rhythm of leather on stone, and the dockside lamps burned in the night-time a green haze, the light of a sad dream.  The water’s roar for Harnett was as the rushing of his own blood and as he passed the merchant yards the guard dogs strung out a sequence of howls all along the front.  See the dogs:  their hackles heaped, their yellow eyes livid.  We could tell he coming by the howling of the dogs. (p. 9 e-book edition)

Barry does an excellent job establishing the decrepitude of Bohane.  Despite it being mentioned on a few occasions that the action transpires in the year 2053, there is no sense of the “future” in this setting:  no phones, no social media, nothing that would made the reader think of 21st century bourgeois society.  Instead, there is a focus on intimate human relations, from how people dress to conform to certain social types (at times, the gangs of Bohane come perilously close to being a bunch of dandies on the prowl, although this certainly is not a defect of the story) to how people walk and talk.  This last element in particular showcases Barry’s talents as a writer, as his dialogues are simultaneously hilarious, threatening, and possess a verisimilitude that very few fiction writers ever manage to achieve.  Below is a sample taken from near the end of Ch. 6, as to secondary characters, Fucker and Wolfie, are gabbing in a pub:

Fucker sat on his hands and bit his bottom lip. Wolfie, more the diplomat of the pair, changed tack.

‘You’d be a fella who’d take a turn ’round Smoketown the odd time, sir?’

‘Now,’ said the spud-ater, ‘we are talkin’ decen’ cuts o’ turkey.’

‘An’ what’d have an interest for you cross the footbridge, sir?’

The old-timer’s eyes sparkled.

‘I’d lick a dream off the belly of a skinny hoor as quick as you’d look at me.’

Wolfie nodded soberly, as though appreciative of the spud-ater’s delicate tastes.

‘Draw a bead and you’ll have your pick o’ the skinnies,’ he said.  ‘Could have a season o’ picks.’

‘A season?’

‘Cozy aul’ winter for ya,’ said Fucker.  ‘Buried to the maker’s name in skinnies and far gone off the suck of a dream-pipe, y’check me?’

The old tout sighed as temptation hovered.

‘Oh man an’ boy I been a martyr to the poppy dream…’

‘An’ soon as you done with the dream-pipe,’ Fucker teased some more, ‘there’d be as much herb as you can lung an ‘ ale to folly.’ (p. 46 e-book edition)

The tone is that of two friends, or at least two friendly pub acquaintances, shooting the bull.  This feels very naturalistic, but this frequently is not an easy thing to accomplish in fiction.  Yet here and throughout the narrative the characters’ voices are distinct yet they contribute greatly toward creating a vivid landscape upon which the action unfolds.  This quality cannot be overstated here as there are times where the plot is relatively weak and it is mostly due to the strongly-drawn characters and their distinctive points-of-views that the action is as memorable as it can be.

Unfortunately, the beautiful, lush language and the well-drawn characters can only carry a story so far.  While the concluding part of City of Bohane is not “weak” per se, it is not as strongly-developed as the other sections of the novel and the conclusion feels as though the narrative engine ran out of gas making the last turn, as it sputters and wheezes its way to a denouement that is merely adequate.  Perhaps this is the flipside to Barry’s accomplishments with narrative and characters:  the reader may find herself wishing at the end that its power could have been sustained for just a couple scenes longer.  As it stands, City of Bohane is a very good novel with memorable prose that finds those elements ultimately betrayed by a plot that just cannot sustain the energy of its first three-quarters.

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