‘City of Bohane’: The Gangs of a Tropical Irish Pirate Port

Bohane is riddled by faction fights on a dystopian, post-apocalyptic frontier where a port city appears to have survived global warming, grown a peninsula, gone pirate, and burst into a Third World tropical shantytown on a coastline absent from any map we have of the Irish Atlantic seaboard.

Here, Kevin Barry departs from the language of his (un-)usual short stories. He has earned high praise. His debut novel City of Bohane earned a front page rave from Pete Hamill in The New York Times Book Review last March. This bold saga sustains the promise of Barry’s first collection of tales from Dublin’s Stinging Fly Press, There Are Little Kingdoms (2007), which won the Rooney Prize, as well as a collection via London’s Jonathan Cape this past April, Dark Lies the Island. For all their range, neither departs from convention; this novel does.

The tale unfolds in a mixture of patois, flowery rhetoric, Travellers cant, and Cork and Limerick-inspired Irish slang. Barry adds considerable amounts of violence to the traditional if censored Irish tale of a faction fight, and more explicit insults. In the bawdy lanes of bustling Bohane, a “lost time” has ended and something dreadful has happened that, by its never being explained, remains all the more menacing, while street justice rules. Honor among thieves is the motto as much as the city newspaper’s masthead: “truth or vengeance”. Unexplained is the absence of technology as we earlier in the millennium enjoy; 40 years on, a global disaster has diminished trade.

Logan Hartnett has ruled the Fancy, the local crime gang. His wife, Macu, must choose between him and the return of an old lover. The Gant Broderick returns to Bohane from a sketchily explained exile to court Macu. Jenni Chang, 17 years old and dressed as if out of Kill Bill, angles to grab a share of the proceeds from whatever falls out between the Gant and Logan. Foppish gangsters crowd around while the sycophantic press (one of the novel’s best touches) watches along with the denizens of Bohane for what will happen next.

Ireland has been altered if projected intriguingly from the island’s recent multicultural changes, as well as peak-oil and climatic fallout. Coriander, curry, Chinese brothels, drug dens, butchers’ remnants and brewery smells, tropical heat and Caribbean sounds and costume create a dystopian but delightfully perverse city for Barry’s tale.

“The bog was dried out and above it a shifting black gauze of midge-clouds palpitated and the turloughs had drained off and there was that strange air of peace in the hills: never-changing, sea-tanged, western. The horizon wavered in hard sun over the poppy fields as the workers toiled in silhouette at the crop. Bleached light on the plain of Nothin’ and a fado lament wailed distant from somewhere on the pikey rez. His feet were blistered.”

The plains grow opium, and the climate nourishes a balmier breeze under intense sun. In such a strangely realized island, one character wonders: “Who’s allowin’ who to live?” Barry’s saga follows familiar tropes: saloons full of intrigue, spurned lovers, taciturn loners, boastful brawlers. As with his short stories, memorable language and restless characters remain Barry’s strength, sometimes more than plot, structure, or originality.

One chronicler of these strange days is underwritten if intentionally, but the perspective afforded this reporter may frustrate those impatient with a logically conveyed narrative. Barry appears to wish to confound his audience, keeping them out of his total confidence. Whether one may be willing to be played with, joining Bohane’s press-hungry dupes, leaves the reader’s predicament its own plot complication.

All in all, similar challenges via the arcane language in Barry’s ambitious novel may reward or confound those willing to seek out the fresh rendering of his tale, more than the studied, mannered patterns of the main plot itself. It’s recognizable despite its filigreed trappings, and as with a spaghetti Western or gangland thriller, the florid setting (plenty of clever alterations and showy tailoring) may allow Barry to revel in the artifice he packs into every page. For his refusal to play this archetypal storyline straight, as he obscures why Ireland and Bohane have been so transformed, he invites the reader to join his imaginative yarn.

RATING 6 / 10