City of Bohane. Kevin Barry.

Barry, Kevin. City of Bohane. Random House, London, 2011. F;11/18.

I was surprised by the straightforward conclusion of Barry’s story The Coast of Leitrim in an October 2018 New Yorker. Could authors be beginning to turn away from slices of life toward a story with a beginning and an end, like composers getting back to melody? This novel was quite different in tone but also had that narrative trajectory, and enough character to keep me happy.

It’s a fictional Irish city in around 2050 which is nothing like your usual utopian science-fiction future. Technology varies from pre-gunpowder to newsprint and silver-based photography. The social flavour is at times early-20th century, at times medieval, so there’s no suggestion of our contemporary political correctness, indeed life in this future has resumed its atavistic appetite for sex, greed, revenge, violence, and lawlessness. Gangs rule, prostitution is usual, and the cops alternately participate and look the other way.

An older gang leader with a couple of younger bad-boy invincible cronies, a brilliant Chinese teenage girl to lead the female side, a frail elderly mother to tell him what to do, and a gorgeous but unsatisfied wife has his hands full. He knows that a war with an opposing gang is brewing. A former rival is back in town looking to reconnect with the wife, and our gang leader also has to negotiate an alliance with an indigenous tribe of bloodthirsty killers.

I wondered if Mr. Barry was a bit out of his imagination’s depth with all this rough stuff. It’s one thing to dream up a crazy uncontrolled world and another for your imagination to live easily in it. One of the main characters’ nickname is Fucker. Language is almost awkwardly coarse:

There in the black pit of December the rain came side-on and whipped its cold assaults. The hardwind was bossing about the place belligerent as a hoor’s broken-faced mother. There was an icy mist ghosting from the ocean that’d just about freeze the tongue solid in your gob.

But there are gentle literary moments: “It was one of those summers you’re nostalgic for even before it passes” and interpersonal insights: “(He) smiled at the advantage he’d found and he knew it would niggle all the more if he did not play it”. The gang battle is rendered in old-fashioned photos, a pirouette executed remotely enough that we can enjoy the story’s representational dimension. Same thing with the narrator, who only appears quietly in the background once or twice, running a library of street videos. People including the gang leader’s wife come to the library to review what life in town used to be like.

A bit of heft here, in other words. Full marks anyway for reaching beyond the conventional and maybe beyond the author’s grasp. This story for all its tough bluster gave me a feeling of beauty that after all in art is never completely in the eye of the beholder. Irish Kevin Barry is nearly 50, no adolescent prodigy. Hard to know if he has yet done his best. I hope not. 8.6/8.9.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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