City of Bohane is all talk: the sharp-edged slang of street gangs, ominous rumors floating on gloomy bogs; the brokenhearted correspondence of erstwhile lovers. Kevin Barry, author of the story collections There Are Little Kingdoms and the forthcoming Dark Lies the Island, wears his Irish heart on his sleeve—like in this passage, which kicks off a chapter in which an ancient feud is about to engulf the city of Bohane.
Solstice broke and sent its pale light across the Big Nothin’ bogs. A half-woken stoat peeped scaredly from its lair in a drystone wall and a skinny old doe stood alert and watchful on a limestone outcrop. Sourly lit, a cruel winter scene—a raven clan soared and watched for scavenge, and there was a slushy melt to the hillside as the distant sun burned, and a puck goat chewed morosely on a high mound there. […] Surge of the water was all to be heard as Ol’ Boy Mannion stood in the first of the year-turn light on a high bank of the river and pensively urinated into it.
That’s a pretty paragraph—and an Irish one, too, with its tender descriptions of a hardscrabble land and its jaunty attitude toward suffering and death. But Barry isn’t some kind of heritage writer. City of Bohane is set in the future, in a blighted Irish factory town of the imagination, with striking Portuguese and Native American flourishes. His narrator speaks in a bastardized tongue that owes more to Deadwood and Quentin Tarantino than to Flann O’Brien.
Jenni Ching pinballed about the assembled mob and screamed crazy Mandarin curses. Jenni Ching carried a spike ball on a chain and swung it above her head. She wore an all-in-one black nylon jumpsuit, so tightly fitted it might have been applied with a spray-can, and she smoked a black cheroot to match it, and her mouth was a hard slash of crimson lippy.
That indelible character, Jenni Ching, is one of a half dozen badasses who converge on the old-fashioned gang war that rips Bohane apart. Alternating among a dozen characters’ perspectives, Barry creates a novel that feels more like a movie you half-recall after a night of heavy drinking. It’s as if Martin McDonagh—the sly Irish playwright behind In Bruges—re-wrote Gangs of New York.
At times the stylization of Bohane threatens to overwhelm the story. Barry can’t stop telling us what a putrid, teetering, deadly city this is, but he clearly adores it, fusses over it, and would hate for anything to change. It has all the meticulous grime of a well-financed Tim Burton slum. And Barry is clearly more at home as a short story writer; City of Bohane starts and stops, losing momentum between chapters as Barry resets his characters like slides on a projector.
But who doesn’t love a gangland fairytale told in daft Irish slang? Dapper villains, saintly thugs, knives flashing in the moonlight, wind howling off the bog—there’s a strong whiff of old Éire in these pages, but for Kevin Barry and his readers, the best lies ahead.
– Brian Hurley