Written by A.W. Marshall
Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane imagines the future in a mythically colorful way that dares his readers to catch up. From page one he bolts forward in a unique dialect, introducing mean-eyed hooligans and lovely whores while the plot chases Logan Harnett, the mafia don of this exotic array of lively and vivid characters, into the foggy underworld of Bohane. Through the unfamiliar colloquial language, many intricacies of place, and the generally chaotic world, the reader is left happily confused. Though it can be annoying and preoccupying to have to go back or look up a word to stay present in a story, this immediate indoctrination is part of the wonder of City of Bohane.
City of Bohane is closer to a graphic novel than a hyper-focused view of how-shitty-things-could-become, like most futuristic settings where humans are on the cusp of nearly all-dead (or undead) due to the ruinous overindulgence of humans. However, Bohane is, thankfully, nothing like that. Its many neighborhoods within—from the Back Trace to Smoketown to the Pikey Dunes to Big Nothin’—are wonderfully brooding and pulsating locales somewhere between Tom Waits’ “Singapore” and Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd, between Jamaica’s Trenchtown and the Marvel’s fictional outlaw town, Madripoor, again in Singapore. However, Barry’s fictional setting lies in Ireland fifty years in the future, and the city of Bohane is fought over by various gangs who want to control the interests, enact revenge, and grab their piece of the future of the town they all seem to adore, lament, and love.
Unlike Waits or Tim Burton, who both work in a similar atmospheric milieu, but who also seem to struggle to get past their primary color palette, Barry doesn’t lose much in this so obviously fictional world. And most importantly, City of Bohane is a raucously fun read, too richly decorated to effectively encapsulate or paraphrase, but, simply, it is the story of the end of Logan Harnett (aka the Long Fella and the ‘Bino), the albino gangster king of the Back Trace, as he struggles to remain king and keep his wife, Macu. The interested interlopers all connive around and within to take their piece of the Back Trace—from Gant Broderick, the legendary “Big Unit” who used to run the Back Trace and who has now suddenly returned after thirty years; Jennie Ching, the cunning Asian beauty playing everybody; Logan’s own mother, Girly Harnett, aged ninety and still running things; the Sand Pikey’s Prince Tubby; and even the likes of Fucker Burke, a Harnett Fancy Boy who never stands a chance. And underneath this main plot line, a love triangle thrums between Logan, Gant, and Macu—Logan’s wife, but Gant’s girl from before Logan stole the Back Trace from him.
This old love affair between Gant and Macu is a nonstop preoccupation for the fifty-year-old Gant Broderick, and it has triggered his return and pursuit of Macu. This is wonderfully managed by Barry, who indicates there was an epic romance between Macu and Gant, due to Gant’s mooning and Macu’s reticence to see him again. And then Barry suddenly trivializes their relationship when Macu plaintively declares they “went out only three weeks.” She is baffled by his devotion. The injury of these words hits Gant, who feels a “spike of nausea,” but also the reader, who experiences Gant’s pain and desperation acutely. Pages later we learn that while Gant’s pursuit of Macu is sincere and fervent, he came back to the Back Trace at Logan Hartnett’s invitation, to test Macu’s fidelity. Such surprises, midway through the novel, just as the symphony of plot heightens through an overdue gang war—revealing itself in accompanying images, exquisite and gruesome—create a satisfying contrast of what you knew and didn’t, and how that’s life—what you knew and didn’t—causing sorrow when we didn’t expect to.
One could criticize a thinness of development and conflict from many of Barry’s characters, though it could be these deficiencies that create the negative space that allows City of Bohane to be so profoundly vivid. Still, a deeper investigation of certain character’s motivations, such as Macu’s true feelings for her husband and suitor, or the mystery of years that whittled Gant Broderick down, would not have diminished the sinisterness of Bohane. More could have been done to flesh out the main characters, particularly Logan and Macu, who remain a bit wooden. City of Bohane could only be enhanced by further understanding of the longings of its two greatest inhabitants. Similarly, Barry missteps with an awkward and unnecessary narrator whom we meet only once and who plays little role in the narrative. He becomes an unnecessary distraction, suggesting an emphasis where there is little—as he is the Ancient & Historical Bohane Film Society Director, which doesn’t become clear until page 178, and even then it doesn’t mean much. The narrator’s connection to antiquity and history leads back to many of Bohane’s characters longing for the “lost time,” which is not paramount to the novel—so why depend on the narrator at all?
But none of these shortcomings interferes with Barry’s ability to write of the guttural life and dirty death of Bohane:
“Even at a little after six in the morning, the concourse was rudely alive and the throb of its noise was by the moment thickening. Amputee walnut sellers croaked their prices from tragic blankets on the scarred tile floors, their stumps so artfully displayed. The Bohane accent sounded every-where: flat and harsh along the consonants, sing-song and soupy on the vowels, betimes vaguely Caribbean. An old man bothered a melodeon as he stood on an upturned orange crate and sang a lament for youth’s distant love. The crate was stamped Tangier—a route that was open yet—and the old dude had belters of lungs on him, was the Gant’s opinion, though he was teetering clearly on Eternity’s maw.”
The language Barry developed for the novel is impressive and creates the experience of fighting into the world (much like visiting a new country), and when you get there you feel it was worth the attention it demands. With a combination of Irish jargon, dated vernacular, Caribbean slang, Spanish, and Portuguese, all in addition to an entire idiom unique to the novel, Barry easily topples any silly concerns about “believability” by creating a sound for the novel so intrinsic and wonderful that Bohane is real whether believable or not. Happily and oddly, unfamiliar words blossom when Googled, creating a satisfying discovery of unknown words: winklepicker, scimitar dirk, shlkelp, or gommie lackeen.
Many of these words are connected to Gaelic, Shelta, and street-level Irish slang, but City of Bohane isn’t about Ireland, even if Barry is from there. The characters do not seem burdened by their history, though some do long for the “lost time.” But this longing is not so much for the Ireland they lost, but nostalgia for the local Bohane from the childhoods they miss. And while struggle and turmoil might be associated with Ireland as it is with any place, the tone belongs to everyone and everyplace. The near constant soundtrack played in every whorehouse to dinner club is Calypso, and even old men connect to their sorrow by dolefully skanking to a reggae beat. City of Bohane is more of an international spittoon of whatever brutal, half-cocked human flotsam washed up onto Ireland’s shore than a novel about the ground these feet tromped on.
One gets the feeling Barry chose the future not for political or philosophical agenda, but simply to have a blank slate to house his vibrant and wonderfully cinematic world, while still belonging to ours. Maybe he didn’t want to be burdened with creating and supporting an entire Bohanian universe. Whereas many novels based in the future contain our bleakest expectations, Barry’s is like a fortune cookie that when cracked will simply say, “In the future, life will be more thrilling. Don’t over think it.” In Barry’s future, our technological landscape and overly poppy cravings are thankfully lost, and what is left is a vivid and dangerous cool. How has the world become this way? No mention. So with no cause, we’re not preoccupied with the meaning of the effects on Bohane or anywhere else. As Barry stated, his book has a “retro-future rather than a techno-future.” And this is some relief to the reader, if a bit unbelievable to anyone bent on analysis. How do they appear to have impressive international shipping and yet live in the dark ages otherwise? How do they not seem to be wanting for clean water or food or super-fashionable clothes if the world has gone caput? You could probably explain it, but then you’re already far from the point—don’t over think it.