Sales of George Orwell’s classic 1984 have been white hot on Amazon lately amid news stories of the scandalous U.S. National Security Administration’s surveillance system, PRISM. Not far behind, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian classic, has been climbing up Amazon’s Top 100. Government scandal or not, dystopian novels have had a solid place in the literary sphere for years.
Kevin Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane is not the expected tale of dystopia. There are no totalitarian states in command. There are no gleaming cityscapes equipped with surveillance cameras spying on citizens. No apocalyptic event has transpired. Instead, Barry’s tale takes place in a dodgy city in the west of Ireland called Bohane, surrounded by a windy wilderness known as Big Nothin’. The city is portrayed as so filthy and unruly that it’s no surprise its residents are a host of malicious and multidimensional characters.
It’s 2053 and Bohane’s citizens have to rely on their wits and physical strength to survive. There’s conflict everywhere, mainly between gangs and various cultural groups invented by Barry. The main players are the Hartnett Fancy and The Norries. The first is a group of young, fashionable gangsters who run the Back Trace under the leadership of head honcho, Logan Hartnett. The second group lives in towering buildings called the Northside Rises and is managed by leader, Eyes Cusack.
Barry refers to his characters as “vicious killers and hoods and rogues“ then adds “and I adore them all.” They are sassy, murderous, and dressed to the teeth. Fashion looms large in the book; Barry likes to interrupt narrative to reveal characters’ outfits. Case in point:
“Logan wore: A pale green suit, slim-cut, of thin spring cotton, a pair of burnt-orange arsekickers with a pronounced, bulbous toe, a ruffle-fronted silver shirt open at the neck, purple neckscarf, a pallor of magnificently wasted elegance, and his hair this season swept back from the forehead and worn just slightly longer, so that it trailed past the ruff of his jacket. Also, a three-day stubble.”
Logan Hartnett is the bigwig of Bohane. He’s a brooding, yearning, and jealous men who obsesses over the city and its past, however; the book’s most animated characters are those who surround him: Jenni Chang, who works for Hartnett, is a Chinese bad ass who shows up for battle in black nylon cat suits and six-inch heels; Harntett’s two henchmen, Wolfie Stanners and Fucker Burke, are well-dressed teenage misfits who do most of Hartnett’s dirty work; and Hartnett’s mother, Girlie – an 89-year-old firecracker –plays Bohane like a game of chess from her lavish apartment overlooking the city.
The city has been at peace (referred to as “the Calm“) for many years, but when one of the Norries is killed (“reefed“) by a member of Hartnett’s gang, the Calm comes to a violent end. Meanwhile, former Bohane lynchpin, Gant Broderick (aka “The Gant“), has returned to town after a twenty-five-year absence. Hartnett’s wife, Macu – a cross-eyed beauty – happens to be the Gant’s former lover.
The setup is prime for dramatic tension, but this isn’t the usual love triangle or gang epic. Despite the violence and comic book-like action, Barry’s novel transcends any boring plot-driven expectations by creating pulsating characters and using surprising and striking twists of language. The dialogue and the narrator’s voice are steeped in an unfamiliar and intriguing dialect. It’s equal parts tongue-twisting Irish brogue, working class spice, and invented words. Barry told The Guardian the novel is “intended to be a big, visceral entertainment as well as a serious language experiment.” (“Richard Lea – Kevin Barry wins Impac award”, 7 June 2013).
Barry’s sense of place is dazzling. To use a phrase the author penned in the novel’s narrative, City of Bohane is written in “tooth ‘n’ claw detail.” He makes Bohane come to life as if it were one of the book’s characters. For example:
“A December Tuesday. A miserable as hell’s scullery beneath a soot-black sky. The nerves of the city were ripped… Polis were everywhere on parade, with their riot sticks swinging, and the fear of SBJ lighting their bog-crawler eyes. Poor goms of boys fresh off the bog and they were going to be duckin’ sckelps and sweepin’ innards to the far side of the year’s turn.
Once I got a handle on the vernacular, the story spilled right out. I was not only absorbed in the narrative, but spellbound by Barry’s fiction-writing talent. He has a way of making time feel indefinite. The gloomy city harkens back to a primordial time when violence was the only way to survive. There’s no mention of technology or guns or even cars. Everyone travels on foot, apart from an occasional train, and they listen to music on wind-up radios.
In the book’s afterward, Barry credits Anthony Burgess and Cormac McCarthy as among his influences. While these writers seem obvious for their authority on gritty dystopian fiction, the book’s murky setting immediately reminded me of a short story by Kazuo Ishiguro called “A Village After Dark”. In it, a man named Fletcher, burdened by the mistakes of his past, navigates an undetermined time and landscape that could be a traditional 18th century English village, a shadowy afterlife, some sort of dreamscape, or a post-apocalyptic world. By not giving the reader too much information, Ishiguro lays down a sense of instability, which in turn creates anxiety as the story unfolds. Barry does the same thing with the vague, nightmarish landscape of Bohane. What’s left out is what is working.
The antiquated setting of the novel reflects the quandary many of the book’s characters struggle with. While they are gangsters and manipulative power seekers, these hard-as-nails people are also prone to spells of nostalgia for the city’s past and the bygone days of their own lives. They even have a name for it called “lost time”. Barry reveals in the book’s afterward that the phrase was inspired by a Portuguese word, saudade, meaning “melancholy or longing”. The wistfulness that absorbs Bohane could be Barry’s vision of Ireland’s, or even the world’s near future, if we aren’t careful now. It could also be a comment on how, at a certain age, every generation thinks its time was better than the present, and longs for its past.
More than halfway through the book, the story’s narrator is revealed as a worker in a film house that shows movies preserved from “lost time”. It’s a clever coincidence that the narrator shows films to the book’s characters as well as narrates the story of Bohane to us. How this narrator can be a worker in a small, dark place yet be so omniscient in the lives of Bohane’s characters is a mystery, but the questionable technique is barely noticeable in the otherwise seamless story. Barry won the 2013 Impac Literary Award for City of Bohane. It’s well deserved. Barry’s stylish writing and his incredible inventiveness make City of Bohane a topnotch read.