Book Review: City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

City of Bohane
Kevin Barry
Vintage 2011, 277 pp. 

When the band travels west on I-70 from Denver to California, I always look forward to that place where the highway ends abruptly in Nevada and makes a T-junction with Highway 15. Your options, at that point, are to travel north to Salt Lake City or south to Las Vegas. I’ve always found this amusing and an odd, existenial choice. SLC is orderly, sober and a quiet place to live -- very much the way I live. Las Vegas, on the other hand, has next to nothing I’m interested in and, to my mind, is mostly brash, vulgar and tacky. And yet, given a free choice, I’d never hesitate to turn south.
I though of that T junction when I read City of Bohane. This is a wild tear of a book. It’s tough, sensitive, civilized, depressing and elating and told in a breath-taking, swirling patois of Hiberno-English and slang.
The story is set in the west of Ireland in about 2054. Some catastrophe has left the world devestated and those who are left live a semi-feral existence and long for the ‘lost time’.
Though the city is divided in various regions -- some are even posh -- one gang known as the Hartnett Fancy rules the roost. Every now and then, other gangs from different parts of the town vie for dominance but none has a leader with the cunning of Logan ‘Long Fella’ Hartnett and, though ostensibly the leader of the gang, it’s his mother, Girly (who is well into her 90s), that is the real power behind any goings-on in town. She lives in her bed in a suite of rooms on the top floor of the big hotel in town, watching old movies of the 1940s and ‘50s, smoking cigarettes and swilling prodigious quantities of John Jameson whisky. Vice is the central preoccupation of life in the Smoketown slum, booze, herb pipes, dream pipes, ‘hoors’. Knives are the weapon of choice -- no firearms to be seen. Outside is the Big Nothin’, populated by the “spud aters”.
There is still commerce in the country and on a sporadic level with other parts of the world -- wine still makes it to the west of Ireland as it did in the days of yore; Galway was once a big wine merchant town. Goods from Portugal -- leather goods particulary. And in this world clothes maketh the man. Central characters are all described at one time or another according to their sartorial preferences. All is meretricious, hedonistic, ambitious, violent and shallow. Except that at the heart of this book there is also love and loneliness and a strange kind of honour. It’s sad, funny and touching.
But it’s the language that makes this book exceptional. Those not acquainted with the lilt and cadence of English as it is spoken in Ireland will have to work a bit. Much of the madcap vocabulary was familiar to me but there are some inventive neoligisms that may take a bit of time to decipher. But don’t be put off. Context and smart guessing will help and nothing crucial will be missed if the odd word fails to connect.

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