Tuesday, 5 November 2013

City of Bohane

City of Bohane - Kevin Barry

"This is the Bohane river we're talking about. A backwater 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."

I came to City of Bohane on the back of some strong recommendations, some great short stories and its success in winning the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. High hopes are often hard to live up to but this book both managed to satisfy and surprise.

The book is like a film noir firework show, words and phrases going off like Catherine Wheels and Roman Candles, Rockets and Spinners, Fountains and Mines. Amoung the blast and whistle of the verbal pyrotechnics are passages that hang, burning themselves quietly into your cortex, like Chinese Lanterns.

It's a book that is both vague and particular, set forty years hence in the aftermath of some event that is never outlined. The future is built from aspects of the past, and present. Mostly it seems like a world with some objects removed. Mobile phones and computers play no part in this world. Messengers tramp the city to pass information on like in a Shakespeare play.

It is set firmly on the wrong side of the tracks, amoung a furious, warring underclass. Sex and drugs are the commerce that fuels the Hartnett Fancy, the gang headed by Logan Hartnett, the albino, the Long Fella. "It was a pair of hand-stitched Portuguese boots that slapped his footfall, and the stress that fell, the emphasis, was money." They are the gang of the city, from Smoketown and the Trace, clothes as sharp as their shkelps, unlike their main rivals from the tower blocks of the Northside Rises, led by Eyes Cusack: "He watched the old scut hock a gibber and tug the trackies from the crack of his arse. Shook his head, Ol' Boy - they had no fucking class up on the Northside Rises."

This world seems to exist hermeneutically sealed off from the middle class, a seal that few from Smoketown or the Trace can breach, although money can get you anywhere. "The Bohane Dacency had built their Beauvista residences to face away from the city - though the money that built them had been bled from it - but Logan Hartnett and his wife were Trace-born, the pair of them, and they kept a roof top terrace shaded by the chimney stacks, and it was oriented to look back across the great bowl of the city, as though in nostalgia for it."

Smoketown is  livid with life, in all it's ugly destructive wonder. It turns its back to nothing, not if there is money to be made: "Smoketown laid out its grog shops, its noodle joints, its tickle-foot parlours. Its dank shebeens and fetish studios. Its shooting galleries, hour stables, bookmakers. All crowded in on each other in the lean-to streets. The tottering old chimneys were stacked in great deranged happiness against the morning sky."

It is a world where the worst addiction is nostalgia for "the lost time" and indeed the whole book could be dubbed no-fi (nostalgia fiction) rather than sci-fi, immersed as it is in the totems of street cultures of many pasts, mod and skinhead, new age traveller and acid-house etc. The clothes are described in great and vivid detail - you could have a City of Bohane fashion show and the costume designer of the film (surely) to be will have a ball. "Tipping seventy, Ol' Boy dressed much younger. He wore low-rider strides, high-top boots with the heels clicker's. a velveteen waistcoat and an old-style yard hat set at a frisky, impish angle." The music includes samba, dub, marching bands and calypso - "The old dudes out on their stoops with wind-up transistors tuned to Bohane Free Radio - where it was always yesteryear." Even the very young seem to crave stories about the "Lost Time".

The main street is named for De Valera although nationalism is absent, loyalty being to Bohane or more truly to whichever part of Bohane you hail from. Tower Blocks are named for Heaney, MacNiece and Kavanagh, although poetry is severely lacking in their shadows. There is even a Kevin Barry Square, but of course that could be the "lad of eighteen summers" who "died for liberty" in the ballad of the same name.

There is an edge of realism running through this vividly imagined fantasy. You can feel the streets of South Hill in Limerick, the tower blocks, the traveller camps, the people already outside the daub and wattle walls of what we like to call society. There is some of Riddley Walker here alright, as has been noted elsewhere and much of Burroughs too, the miasmic spell of place, the radioactive isotopes of disintegrating time, the world at once modern and ancient centred on trade and control and an undertow of psychic power. And death, not even bothering to hide in the shadows, but surrounding you at every step. "In a small city so homicidal you needed to watch out on all sides."

At times it was like being at a huge music festival, a city sprung from the fields, a temporary Casbah more permanent in its way than any shopping centre or main street. The local and the far flung are mixed with impunity, suggesting the currents that bring them together as much as the distance that separates them. "The Bohane accent sounded everywhere: flat and rash 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."

There are many plots running simultaneous, like. Logan is married to Macu, who once stepped out with the Gant Broderick, Logan's predecessor as kingpin of the Hartnett Fancy. His return after twenty five years looks set to shake things up, both domestically and politically. Where there's politics of any kind you will find Ol' Boy Mannion, shuttling back and forth, with everybody's ear and everybody's secrets. ("The Mannion wind box was an instrument of wonder. It mimicked precisely the tones and cadence of whoever he was speaking to, while retaining always a warm and reassuring note. Hear him on Endeavour and you'd swear he had shares in the Bohane First Commercial; hear him out on Nothin' and you'd swear he was carved from the very bog turf. Ol' Boy, bluntly, was political.")

All of these, in their forties and fifties and seventies, are seen as old in what is a young persons life.   "Of course if you were going by the reckoning of pikey bones the Gant was old bones now for certain. He was fifty years to paradise." Logan's mother, at ninety, is the oldest of all. The wonderfully grotesque Girly Hartnett sits in state in her darkened hotel room while watching old films from the lost time and every so often struggling across the carpet to peer between the heavy drapes that keep her room darkened. Logan's lieutenants Fucker Burke and Wolfie Stammers are still in their teens and the Chinese killer Jenni Ching, straight outta Tarantino in her spray on catsuit is not long turned twenty. The younger generation are watching and waiting for any signs of weakness from the Long Fella and there is a force massing in the towers as families come together under the leadership of Eyes Cusack. There are also the sand-pikeys who live amoung the dunes between Smoketown and the sea, independent and fierce fighters. "They didn't get mixed up in Feuds too often, but when they did?" Mostly "they made weaponry for their protection and for trade. They built also six-bar gates they sold to the farming fraternity: the Big Nothin' fermoiri."

The Nothin' surrounds the city, a waste of bog where peasants eke out a living. It is like the landscape of spaghetti westerns, the desert from which the hero rides. This is one of the things Barry seems to do with ease, constantly call on pop (and high) cultural references without being swamped by them. A list of the influences apparent in this book would be very long, but he synthesises them into something new and completely his own. The narrator is the proprietor of the A&H Bohane Film Society, which feels like a nod to master of modern Irish gothic, Pat McCabe, who's literary universe is similarly made up of characters obsessed with old films speaking in vivd slang.  Barry also delivers incongruities like punchlines in a way reminiscent of Flann O'Brien, throwaway and pungently observed - "These were the merchants of the city, men with a taste for hair lacquer, hard booze and saturated fats." - "It has the name of an insular and contrary place, and certainly, we are given up to bouts of rage and hilarity." But this high tide of references and throwaway laughs is always pinned to the page by the archetypical nature of the tale of power, its wielding and its succession.

It is a book I could keep quoting and describing but really what I want to say is read this. I don't know if the language will work as seamlessly for those outside Ireland, but the reception suggests that it does. It is a mixture of various slang terms and words from the Cant, a tongue spoken by Irish travellers, all topped off by the twists Barry brings to the use and arrangement of words and the rhythm of speech. It manages to be both heard and invented.  The singsong rhythms give added impetus to the book. It has music. "There are soothsayers. There are purveyors of goat's blood cures for marital difficulties. There are dark caverns of record stores specialising in ancient calypso 78s - oh we have an old wiggle to the hip in Bohane, if you get us going at all." Dance with them.

The Film Coolockland, written by and starring Ronan Carr, is one potential influence that may not be known to many.  

A tweet and a response:
Reading #CityofBohane It's Red Harvest directed by Serge O'Lonely from a script by Pat McChandler set in the Clara Casbah.  And more.

@SeamusDuggan Blood Meridian in Limerick, scripted by Flann O'Brien, directed by Bela Tarr.
@jamiedotdotdot If this is poker I think I just lost my shirt!


  1. Your review brings it all back to me, Seamus. I have 2 copies of the book and one is always on loan. No one is safe from having a copy forced on them. The mass edition paperback doesn't have the map, which is quite an oversight. Any view on why the narrator appears only for a few pages well into the book?


    1. My copy does have the map, and I did use it. I saw the narrator as a nod to the fact that the book is in part constructed from old movies, which is also reinforced by Girly's viewing - presumably from the narrator's stock. Perhaps the book was more obviously metafictional at the outset.
      I also saw a nod to Pat McCabe and Flann O'Brien - both of whom present towns warped in part by their film viewing. Perhaps the clearest example is Cowtown / Ringsend in At-Swim-Two-Birds. Indeed I felt Cowtown / Bohane might be related.

  2. Really loved this. My version was without a map now feel like i missed something. Having recently watched peaky blinders on tv (also played out with a western feel) it reminded me of the novel despite pb being a Birmingham period piece (although the nick cave soundtrack would work really well as music to read city of bohane to