Author: Kevin Barry

2012, Graywolf

Filed under: Literary, Fantasy

Kevin Barry is a wonderful stylist, a rare talent in the prose department. He writes City of Bohane in a gritty patois largely of his own making, halfway between Dashiell Hammett and A Clockwork Orange. Even so, it never gets too precious or contrived, and it never feels like Barry is reaching. That’s a very difficult feat, and the fact that Barry manages it for the entire novel without missing a beat, well, that’s nothing short of remarkable.

It’s a shame, then, that once you delve into the rich prose, there’s nothing inside worth getting to.

The setting, like the prose, is beautiful and mostly pointless. It’s 2053 in the west of Ireland, but it might as well be 1930s Chicago, or 1880s South Dakota, or a noir Narnia (Noirnia?). It feels vaguely post-apocalyptic and fairly Irish, but neither of those facts are essential to the story Barry tells.

That story goes like this: the city of Bohane is run by gangsters. The biggest, baddest gangster is Logan Hartnett, called the Albino, the boss of the self-named Hartnett Fancy (“fancy” being slang for a violent, murderous gang). Twenty-five years before the action starts, Logan exiled his dear friend and business partner, the Gant, and he stole the Gant’s girlfriend, Macu, and married her. Now, the Gant is back for his city and his girl, and his return sparks a gang war.

That’s not a particularly original premise, but it could be good in the right hands, especially when played out with rambunctious style. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen here. When the narrator expounds on the love triangle, it becomes fairly ridiculous. The Gant, it turns out, only dated Macu for three weeks before Logan broke them up. Over the two and a half decades of the Gant’s absence, he writes her hundreds and hundreds of letters, sending her only one. She thinks even that single missive was kind of silly, because they are not star-crossed lovers—she has no feelings for him, and he soon realizes that he doesn’t even like her. Even so, for some reason, the Gant proceeds with his war against Logan.

The motivations of these various characters never add up, and Barry’s colorful prose doesn’t help. It’s the novel’s most enjoyable facet, by far, but too often it obscures the differences between characters or the action happening.

For example, here’s a sparkling scene-setting line:

In the dawn haze, the brewery lads were dreamy-eyed from hopsfume, while the slaughterhouse boys had been all the silver and shade of night up to their oxters in the corpses of beasts, filling the wagons for the butchers’ slabs at the arcade market in the Trace, and the wagons rolled out now across the greasy cobbles, and it was a gorey cargo they hauled

It’s an evocative, masterful style when applied to anonymous scenes like this, but when characters interact, they all do so in this style, which means they sound so similar as to be almost indistinguishable.

Like this conversation between two of Logan’s lieutenants, Wolfie and Fucker:

Narky look off the Wolfie-boy, Fucker reckoned, and rightly.

“Was lookin’ for ya, Wolf.”

“I been lookin’ for Jenni, ain’t I? You seen fuckin’ Jenni, yuh?”

“Ain’t, Wolf.”

“Said y’seen Jenni anywhere about, Fuck?”

Mad eyes swivellin’ in the Wolfie-boy puss.

“Said I ain’t seen her, Wolf.”

“Fuck she ai ‘n’ all, like?”

Taint of badness on the Bohane air had its various strands and jealousy was not the least among them.

Barry’s slangy prose is so distinctive that the characters blur together, and the nameless narrator with them. That weakness, though, would still be forgiveable if the story at the center were worth the effort of following it—but it leaves too much to be desired. After tensions build, Logan and the Gant choose up sides and the whole city erupts into war. That takes about five pages, slightly less page-space than Barry gives to in-depth descriptions of what everybody’s wearing during the fight.

That big fight happens less than halfway through the narrative. The rest of the book gives over to the particulars of the aftermath, especially how each side’s compromises come back to bite them, or at least mildly inconvenience them.

The fight itself? Nobody really wins. One side kind of does, but nobody central dies, and nobody even moves away. If this is a morality tale about pacifism, its primary lesson seems to be that even violence can be super boring.

The problem here is that Barry’s style overflows with panache and daring and plain old awesomeness… but his plot never grows past mundane. I’ll be waiting for Barry’s next novel, but this one is a miss.

Similar reads: Noir, by Robert Coover; A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon