City of Bohane by Kevin Barry: Steampunk Tarantino
Earlier this year the Irish author Kevin Barry won The International Dublin IMPAC award, one of the richest and most eclectic book prizes, for City of Bohane, beating a global short-list including works by Houellebecq and Murakami. In this first novel (and second release after his story collection, There Are Little Kingdoms), Barry has invented a world entire; few writers are this courageous (Atwood, Marquez, Warner, Faulkner, come to mind) and even fewer succeed. Some readers may not be enamored by its violence and acid humor, and some may argue (erroneously) that his playful nods to graphics, westerns, and noir somehow disqualify it from true literary consideration, but it cannot be denied that City of Bohane confirms Barry as a major voice in ‘English’ literature. (Spoiler alert before reading on. And you may wish to un-hook your jaw in preparation for Barry’s linguistic gymnastics, because in my enthusiasm I may have quoted the whole darn book…)
It is 2053 in the City of Bohane, situated somewhere on the west coast of an Ireland stagnant in the aftermath of an unspecified military or economic upheaval. Technology—such as the Internet, cell phones, cars—has receded like flood water as though it had never been; trams or feet provide transportation; chibs, knives and knuckles do more than adequate duty in place of guns. Its streets and projects— named Kavanagh, De Valera, Heaney, etc, after Irish greats from the evocative “lost-time”—teeter on the brink of lawlessness kept in check by a fragile pact between corruptible city elders and territorial criminals. Current top-dog is Logan Hartnett, an “albino motherfucker” known as the Long Fella, leader of the Hartnett Fancy gang, “a dapper buck in a natty-boy Crombie” with a “mouth of teeth on him like a vandalized graveyard.” Logan lives in one of the Nob Hill Manses, a “Beauvista Gothical… all elbows and chimneys,” in thrall to his wife, Macu, a blow-in from Portugal (a country with which Bohane seems to have considerable trade), whose beauty is dented not one whit by her squint, and to his eighty-nine year old mother, Girly, who has all the charm of old Ma Soprano. Girly spends her time pestered by daydreams about Yul Bryner or graveling complaints over Logan’s sloppy handle on the family business.
The stage is set for a High Noon of Sergio Leone proportions. The Calm has gone on too long. Logan’s boys, the good, the bad, and the ugly, are tetchy, bored, spending their afternoons talking abut tush and kecks, trying out new partings in their hair. In rolls mayhem with the “Murk of Bohane… a grayish, impenetrable mist” to lay “great torridness over the city,” and over the pages of the sensational tabloid the Bohane Vindicator. When persuasion, intimidation, and violence fail to keep bloodshed in check Logan resorts to that reliable stand-by, religion. Is “Baba due an appearance, Mr. H?” asks a lieutenant. “Sweet Jay on the comeback trail,” Logan confirms, shunting off to orchestrate a miracle and “within days of the faked stigmata appearing on the palms of the Cusack girl, there were holler-meetings being staged in the shebeen basements of the flatblocks… writhing with fainters, swooners, hot-foot shriekers,… Word was delivered from Messengers Unseen.” This cleansing fire sends the hoors and Norrie sluts to join the gang of the “killer-bint Ching” Jenni, quietly amassing an army for the next apocalypse. Now, this city, this story, would seem completely alien had you never witnessed an economic meltdown or driven through Glasgow’s Easterhouse or Dublin’s Ballymun.
But enough about plot; let’s talk about clothes, because Barry understands the crushing importance of uniforms to clans, that ritualistic relationship between appearance, courage, and power. My mother used to admonish me to always wear clean underwear in case I was ever in an accident, so if getting your head caved in is an occupational hazard you might as well plan on being a snappy corpse. And, boy, do they ever like their bespoke togs in ye olde Bohane. Anyone mourning the demise of Romford bling, anyone with a secret crush on dandies, Portuguese boots, rip-off Versace, or satin trackies, will be in upscale numpty heaven rifling through the wardrobes of Barry’s leading players. Logan rocks a brace of mohair Eyetie suits and a top hat, while our Jenni is “a saucy little ticket in her lowriders and wedge heels, her streaked hair pineappled into a high bun.” Fond of a vinyl white zip-up, she likes her tit-pockets, handy for a stogie or a chib. Meanwhile “Fucker wore: Silver high top boots, drain-pipe strides… a low-slung dirk belt and a three-quarter jacket of saffron-dyed sheepskin.” Meanwhile “Macu wore: A fitted knee-length dress of lynxskin, a fox stole, a ritual eyepaint that drew flames of crimson from the corners of her eyes, and a slash of purple lippy.” Meanwhile Wolfie wore “an electric blue ska suit and white vinyl brothel-creepers with steel toe-caps inlaid.” Oh, yes, the narrator reminisces, back in the day ”a Fancy-boy would wear clicker’d clogs with crimson sox pulled to the top of the calf … a tweed cap set back to front, a stevedore donkey jacket with hi-viz piping, the hair greased back and quaffed—oh, we must have looked like proper rodericks.” The only outsider I imagine with enough guts and swagger to mingle among these stylish chancers would be Omar, in his leather-duster and gauntlets from The Wire.
But enough about fashion; let’s talk about language because it is the extraordinary voice propelling this narrative which is Barry’s greatest achievement, and more than compensates for a plot that dribbles away. In homage to the tradition of the seanchaí, or storyteller, he creates a shrewd, omniscient narrator, who seems to look down on the shenanigans from some Irish version of Mount Olympus, but turns out to be the proprietor of the Ancient and Historical Bohane Film Society where those most afflicted by memories of “the lost times” can wallow in saudade. The seanchaí’s diction is an intoxicating salty blend of high and low, and being of their number ensures against condescension as he recounts each character’s tragic-comic Shakespearian fate. “Here they came,” says our narrator, introducing his fellow-citizens, “all the big-armed women…Here came the sullen Polacks and the Back Trace crones. Here came the natty Africans and the big lunks of bo-spawn polis. Here came the pikey blow-ins and the washed-up Madagascars. Here came the women of the Rises down the 98 steps to buy tabs and tights and mackerel.” Satirizing weepy nostalgia for an Emerald Isle of whisky, mammies, fiddles, and famine, he concludes, “have a sconce at the old gaatch of us – the slope-shouldered carry, the belligerence of the stride, the smoky hazel of our eyes, officer material we are not,” while boasting there are, nevertheless, “no better men for the poetical thoughts.” Having spent my early years buffeted into a right angle by gusty Scotland, I must also concur that “too little has been said, actually, about living in windy places…the effect is not only physical but philosophical. It is difficult to keep hold of one’s consciousness.”
Barry’s Bohane slang blends Irish and Scots patter with a dash of Caribbean ghetto, an accent “harsh along the consonants, sing-song and soupy on the vowels.” Much of the dialogue would have turned the late-lamented Elmore Leonard green. “Full whack on the fishmonger is the ‘bino’s word, ” explains one lieutenant to another, while the narrator sums up Logan’s charisma, succinctly, as “gubernatorial.” Sentences often end with a direct address to the reader: Jenni Ching “rode out the measured beat of her ascension and a bump of fear, too, y’check me?” With “y’check me?” meaning, do you understand? Barry invents weapons too; I’ve no idea what a “shkelper” is, but I’d hazard a guess.
George Saunders, the American writer known for his mastery of dialogue and voice, once mentioned in an interview the paramount importance of sound when editing his work. Barry must heartily agree with him because it’s obvious he carefully composed the atonal music of his clauses to thwart a complacent ‘dum-de-dum-de-dum’; just when you’re getting into a rhythm he hits you with a flat vowel or a stubby consonant. This emphasis on the glottal stop conjures up the Gaelic, mirrors the harsh terrain of Bohane, anchors Barry’s novel within the sagas of Nordic / Celtic mythology. “Macu was the first-prize squaw that summer back deep in the Bohane lost time.” Read this previous sentence aloud in front of a mirror and you’ll look like you’re doing rehab for a broken jaw. Barry’s editor is to be commended as he or she appears to have cut the reins and said, ‘have at it, ye prankster.’
(Aside: an ode to ‘fuck.’ Many moons ago, after I finished giving a talk on Scottish literature, a member of the audience asked me why the word ‘fuck’ appeared so frequently in our conversation and prose. Overcome by a combination of relief, terror, and adrenalin, my head filling with white noise, I blundered out an incoherent reply along the lines of “uh?” I was reminded of this while reading City of Bohane, and wish I’d had the wits and gumption back then to respond that ‘fuck’ exceeds William Morris’s contention that every object should be either useful or beautiful by being both.
What would we Scots and Irish do without it? Its original meaning no longer carries much heft but its current uses are threefold. First, it acts as a form of punctuation, or placeholder, giving the speaker time to gather their thoughts, or, more critically given how much us Scots and Irish love to yak on, hold the floor. Second, it supplies that oh-so-attractive glottal stop, characteristic of the world’s most elegant dialects, such as, say, Glaswegian – all that fifing and hissing slamming into a sharp Gaelic “ck”- akin to ramming your toe on a bedpost. If ever we sense our pronounciation swoon toward the Latinate a quick ‘fuck’ will bring it back in line. Third, and most critically, it supplies missing beats. Our cultures are indebted to the oral traditions of poetry and song and the musicality of speech is highly prized. Consider the following two quotes from Barry’s novel:
“A Chinkee gettin’ bred off a ginge? Weird lookin’ fuckin’ baba, no?”
In the first quote ”fucking” ensures the line is not one beat too short. Orally, without it, the line also sounds too ‘soft.’ ‘Fuck’ counteracts those wimpish Eyetie vowels (and all those ss’s in “place someways civilized”), while simultaneously satirizing Logan’s civic-mindedness. In the second quote, apart from making it funnier due to the oral contortion, while adding the necessary extra beat, it’s also punctuation, giving the listener time to, first, conjure up the image being described, and, second, assess the erudition of the assertion being made. Unfortunately because ‘fuck’ sounds hard, a faulty assumption has been made by some that using it liberally proves they are ‘hard.’ When the instinctive rhythm or vocabulary of the speaker is limited – when, for example, the speaker is a glaekit neddish numptie or a Kelman or a Walsh on a too-literal literary tear – then it is a cancerous scourge that reflects badly on us all. But, if deployed sparely and wisely by a skilled dialectician—by a true patter merchant—it can be a thing of beauty.)
Stretch it, squash it, pulverize it, vault it; is there anything Barry can’t do with language? But is his talent wasted on this sci-fi noir? Only those without a cinematic imagination or who believe literary fiction should not be sullied by genre would say so. City of Bohane is so enjoyable because it is obvious that so much joy went into its creation. Now that Barry has depicted Ireland’s economic debacle and trenchant nostalgia as a Steampunk Tarantino allegory (and surely that Odd Fella has bought the rights by now), what in heck will he do next? I can’t wait to see. Y’check me?