The Mad Music of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane

May 31, 2012 | 9 4 min read

Thank you, Kevin Barry, for reminding us that the people in the book business are not all idiots simply because they remain locked in slavish pursuit of The Next Hot Young Thing. Your first novel, City of Bohane, is proof that every once in a long while the slavish pursuit leads to the discovery of a genuine gem, a new writer like you who pops onto the scene fully formed, spewing poison and wit, able to use the English language as a weapon and a tool and a toy. There’s music and magic in your prose.

coverThe fictional city of the novel’s title is located in the West of Ireland. It’s the middle of the 21st century and this wind-battered burgh, pierced by a foul black river and surrounded by a boggy wilderness known as the Big Nothin’, is brewing with bad portents. Logan Hartnett, aka the Albino, aka the Long Fella, is the fearsome kingpin of the reigning gang known as the Hartnett Fancy, but he’s been hearing whispers. An old rival, the Gant Broderick, is said to be coming back to town after a 25-year absence, his intentions unknown but presumed to be less than benign. Worse, the residents of the cliff-top slums known as the Northside Rises, are chafing under the Fancy’s rule, itching for a change of administration. Worst of all, Logan’s wife Macu (for Immaculata) was the Gant’s former lover, and now she’s thinking about abandoning Logan, maybe going straight, maybe going back to the Gant. What’s a ganglord to do?

Don’t let the nifty set-up mislead you into thinking this is yet another mechanical piece of plot-driven fiction. Though there’s plenty of action — and more than a little of the old Ultra Violence — the real star here is Barry’s language, the music of it. Every page sings with evocative dialog, deft character sketches, impossibly perfect descriptions of the physical world. Kevin Barry is, of course, Irish to his bones.

Here, for instance, is how a pot-stirrer from the Northside Rises name of Eyes Cusack got his handle: “Eyes was named so for good reason. He saw the city through tiny smoking holes set deep in a broad, porridgy face.” Girly, Logan’s irrepressible 90-year-old Ma, has spent the past the past 30 years “buzzing on off-script tablets, hard liquor and Hedy Lamarr pictures.” The Gant Broderick has “a pair of hands on him the size of Belfast sinks,” and he came up rough-like: “His father was a no-good Nothin’ quaffer. His father was half his life nose-deep in a bowl of Wrassler stout and sentimental as a sackful of ballads.” Here’s what a certain fishmonger does inside a shotbar: “He shlepped back a couple of mulekickers and tried to paw the plastik bazookas off the Ukrainer barkeep.” Typical lout.

The city of Bohane is itself a character, as well as a molder of character. Here’s a warren of vice on the southside: “Smoketown was hoors, herb, fetish parlours, grog pits, needle alleys, dream salons and Chinese restaurants…All crowded in on each other in the lean-to streets. The tottering old chimneys were stacked in great deranged happiness against the morning sky.” And here’s the malevolent river: “…it is a black and swift-moving rush at the base of almost every street, as black as the bog waters that feed it, and a couple of miles downstream the river rounds the last of the bluffs and there enters the murmurous ocean. The ocean is not directly seen from the city, but at all times there is the ozone rumour of its proximity, a rasp on the air, like a hoarseness. It is all of it as bleak as only the West of Ireland can be.”

Clothing is important to Barry as a revealer of character. Here’s what a sociopathic killer named Fucker Burke wore:

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. He was tall and straggly as an invasive weed. He was astonishingly sentimental, and as violent again. His belligerent green eyes were strange flowers indeed. He was seventeen years of age and he read magical significance into occurrences of the number nine. He had ambition inside but could hardly even name it.  His true love: an unpredictable Alsatian bitch name of Angelina.

And here’s what Fucker’s homicidal sidekick Wolfie Stanners wore:

Black patent high-tops, tight bleached denims with a matcher of a waistcoat, a high dirk belt, and a navy Crombie with a black velvet collar. Wolfie was low-sized, compact, ginger, and he thrummed with dense energies. He had a blackbird’s poppy-eyed stare, thyroidal, and if his brow was no more than an inch deep, it was packed with an alley rat’s cunning. He was seventeen, also, and betrayed, sometimes, by odd sentiments under moonlight. He wanted to own entirely the city of Bohane.

But it’s not to be his. For all its testosterone, the novel is orchestrated by three quietly powerful and cunning women — Girly, Macu, and charismatic Jenni Ching, a girl of old Smoketown stock, proprietress of the Ho Pee Ching Oh-Kay Koffee Shoppe, who rises above the violent flailings of the men and brings together her own fighting force of “a half-dozen wilding girls.” They’re the future of the city of Bohane, a place much like the world we live in today, where tribes will forever rise while other tribes fall, where violence is bred into the wind and the water, and where all any person can hope for is enough style and guile to survive.

Thank you for all of this, Kevin Barry. Please keep the mad music coming.

Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. Barry’s short stories are great, but I’ve heard mixed views on this novel. Still, he’s doing something different, he’s making a mark and he’s one to watch in future. So, yes BIll: thank you, Kevin Barry.

  2. Lyndsay,

    I usually hate it when people say a book (or a movie or a TV show) is “X meets Y,” like “It’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ meets ‘What To Expect When You’re Expecting'”, or whatever. But I must admit that likening “City of Bohane” to “James Joyce meets ‘Sin City'” has more than a small grain of truth to it. And I was glad to learn that Kevin Barry doesn’t wear that porkpie hat ironically.

    Thanks for reading The Millions.

  3. Another one for the summer list! My reading table is bowing under the weight. It’s good weight to put on…a touchy subject in NYC these days, I gather.

  4. Pingback: WRITERS READ
  5. This book has been such a massive disappointment! I started out with all the goodwill in the world but the overkill of Slang knocked the reading-zest right out of me. The characters don’t appreciably advance beyond the shape of cut-out stereotypes and some of the… well, sad to type, sexism… induced cringing. There are of course various dashes of verbal brilliance but the slanginess bogs the whole enterprise down, y’sketch me? And there is… this is difficult to explain… a certain comical slap stickiness about the entire narrative that made me simply not care. I felt reminded of British caper movies, which work well on the screen but crumble on page. My recommendation is to read 10pages or so before buying it; advice I wish I would’ve been given.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.