Kevin Barry’s debut novel comes festooned with dust-jacket commendations from marquee name authors. ‘‘The most arresting and original writer to emerge from these islands in years,” claims Irvine Welsh on the front cover. Meanwhile, round the back, Joseph O’Connor abandons all restraint with regard to this ‘‘unforgettably wonderful novel’’, which he pitches to the prospective reader as ‘‘Joyce meets Anthony Burgess’’, and as ‘‘an electrifying masterpiece . . . as funny as Flann O’Brien’’.
This kind of reckless blurbing is understandable – established names will always want to give a leg-upto talented newcomers, and their publishers will always want to elicit the most eye catching plaudits possible – but it does neither the author nor the reader any real favours. The latter goes in warily, ungenerously, braced against the inevitable letdown. So it is (perhaps a little perversely) a genuine surprise when a debut as brashly hailed as City of Bohane is as impressive as it’s promised to be.
Although the Joyce and O’Brien comparisons are more or less specious, Barry is a writer of considerable comic and stylistic gifts. His novel is a work of pure and unrestrained imagination, both in its linguistic resourcefulness and its vivid depiction of a small, crime-ridden west of Ireland city in the year 2053. Bohane is a wild vision of comic-book lawlessness and lasciviousness, a volatile compound of Frank Miller’s Sin City and JM Synge’s Mayo. The plot is skeletal and almost parodically hackneyed (gang feud, love triangle), and its characters are sketches – noir types and cartoonish grotesques. Logan Hartnett, middle-aged dandy and leader of the Fancy gang, is struggling to maintain his monopoly on Bohane’s thriving vice economy in the face of opposition from the rival Cusack crime family and manoeuvring from his own ambitious underlings. He is also challenged by the return from abroad of his old rival Gant Broderick, who was once both leader of the Fancy gang and lover of Hartnett’s wife Macu.
And that’s about all Barry gives us in terms of actual events. This would be thin material even for the comic books and exploitation flicks the book is so clearly informed by, but he gets away with stretching it out over 277 pages by virtue of sheer stylistic audacity. The city itself is, by some margin, the novel’s most memorable and vivid character – and it is Barry’s prose that brings it so richly to life. The narrator (a citizen of Bohane, who emerges briefly as a character halfway through the novel before mysteriously disappearing) is given to frequent and lavish descriptions of its streets and its buildings, its heaving ‘‘hoorshops’’ and treacherous ‘‘grogpits’’, and pauses repeatedly to describe, in fond detail, the outfits worn by the characters. Thus we are informed, upon first introduction to the sublimely named hard bastard Fucker Burke, that he wears ‘‘silver high-top boots, drainpipe strides in a natty-boy mottle, a low-slung dirk belt and a three-quarter jacket of saffron-dyed sheepskin’’, and then briefed anew on his attire almost every subsequent time he appears. Weirdly, this never becomes tiresome.
It’s the language of the novel that’s the real revelation here. Barry’s rich and wholly convincing patois is one part film noir tough talk, one-part contemporary Limerick vernacular and several parts sheer exuberant invention. Although Barry is firmly in possession of his own distinct voice, I was reminded on more than a few occasions of the strange, lovely, preposterous Hiberno-English spoken by Synge’s characters. The editor of the local paper (The Bohane Vindicator) tells the returned Gant that it has been ‘‘a stretch of lonesome moons since ya last hauled yer bones aroun’ the city of Bohane’’; rival gang leader Eyes Cusack is described as having a smile ‘‘the likes of which you wouldn’t get off a stoat in a ditch’’. The novel is full of this wonderful stuff, and it keeps the pages turning in the absence of an absorbing storyline or compelling characters.
At one point, Hartnett commits a murder, not with his own ornate knife, but with his victim’s, because he ‘‘would not stain his dress-shkelp with such frivolous blood’’. The novel’s own heart pumps frivolous blood too, and its pages are stained with trivial gore. But ultimately, as with the Tarantino films and graphic novels which are among its many identifiable influences, its violence and shallowness are a major part of its queasy appeal.