City of Bohane — Mad Max Meets The Poor Mouth

There are some novels you find yourself reading out loud without even realising it, as you swirl the flavours of the language around your palate.  This happened to me last night when I finally got around to opening City of Bohane and found myself still awake at five in the morning. I finished it this afternoon over a nice cup of tea in my pub of choice with people giving me funny looks as I voiced the speech of the characters.

It’s impossible not to do so with dialogue that jumps off the page, weird and vaguely familiar at the same time.  It takes control of your tongue and commands you to speak.  I have rarely read a book that manages to make language sparkle as it does in City of Bohane but  Kevin Barry’s novel is that kind of book, an extraordinary blend of post-apocalyptic weirdness and Hell’s Kitchen gangster tale.

Here comes the second layer of weirdness, but it isn’t for everyone: just the denizens of this here borough.  The city that is the book’s central character could be anywhere. It could be Marseille.  It could be Liverpool.  I could be Djakarta.  It could be New Orleans.  But it isn’t. It’s Limerick!


I know.  Hardly a surprising discovery given that Barry grew up here, but it took about fifty pages before it dawned on me, which is probably very slow.  I was never the quickest on my feet anyway, or on my dancers as the good people of Bohane might call them, but the language is pure Limerick dialect, mixed in with a bit of tinker-talk and the author’s own imagined speak, y’sketch?  ‘Twould put the heart skaw-ways in you, as the old people used to say and as Barry remembers.  Is there e’er a chance ye might recall it yereselves?  Ironically, this kind of speech is far from traditional Irish, having its roots in the English spoken by the Elizabethan soldiers sent to quell this uppity little island, and preserved by  centuries of urban Irish people until little more than a generation gone by, when young people started to speak like Yogi Bear.

Oddly, my personal insight into the language is a handicap.  Someone unfamiliar with the argot will be entranced, captivated and ensnared by the dialogue.  It jumps and it sparkles.

This is a book of gangs, of psychopathic dandies, of turf wars, opium dens and grim deeds carried out in the half-light of an August murk in off the sea.  Barry has realised that you can’t just write a post-apocalypse novel without changing the way people talk, precisely as Russell Hoban did when he wrote the wonderful Riddley Walker, and so he created a new voice for the people, yet a voice that sounds utterly familiar.

Far to the north are the poppy fields, disregarded by a corrupt and degenerate hoss polis, a force ready and willing to accept bribes and inducements.  You learn that only some world routes are still open.  Mobsters can buy their high-topped boots from Zagreb and their wine from Portugal, but for most people, life is grim.

Another great post-apocalyptic book

His touch is so light that you never quite know what disaster befell this Ireland of the 2050s.  You can see the disused pylons everywhere.  You know that everything is powered by generators.  The streets are lit only when the Authority can afford it.  You realise there are no cars, no mobile phones, no computers, no email and no guns.  People write to each other, and when they wish to commit homicide, they do so using shkelpers: knives.  Shkelp, a wonderful North of England word, kept alive in Ireland and reimagined by Barry.   Even the most powerful mob boss must walk in the biting wind and the rain, for there is no other means of transport except the foot.  This is not the world we know.

And yet, this weird and strangely familiar town is the place they choose to be.  They could take the High Boreen to the Big Nothin’, or even the Nation Beyond (known as the NB) but they don’t.

I recognised individual characters and whole families from local knowledge, which provided a wry insight.  Having done a little bit of this kind of thing, I know that an afternoon in the public house can have a wonderfully clarifying effect on the creation of a character, but general readers are probably better off lacking the home-town knowledge, to preserve the feel of the story.

Barry takes a bit of here and a bit of there to create Bohane, and it all reminded me of Myles Na gCopaleen’s Corkadorcha in the Poor Mouth.  I’m sure Kevin must have read Myles/Flann/Brian, just as I’m sure he looked to Blade Runner, Once Upon a Time in America, Mad Max, perhaps Riddley Walker and many more besides but he went one step further than most.  Just like Stephen King, Barry realised something that only the best practitioners know: you have to leave them wondering, and he doesn’t provide all the answers.  He just plants the questions. This city of Bohane doesn’t seem to be a direct projection of 2011 Ireland, even if the apocalypse occurs.  There’s too much weirdness.  Something else is going on.

This city of Bohane is in a parallel reality, close enough to be familiar, yet sufficiently removed from us to be entirely alien and terrifying.  It’s not an offshoot of our current existence, but a strange and menacing alternative universe.  You wouldn’t want to meet any of this book’s characters in real life.

My conclusion? Wonderful.  Years ago I gave up caring if something is good literature.  Is it a good read?  That’s all that matters, and this one is a big thumbs up.  It cost me a night’s sleep.

I hate Kevin Barry.  I’m consumed by jealousy at his gift for language.  I want to track him down and eat his liver.

I’d say he had the greatest laugh of his life writing this book though, y’heed?

How we now, Kev?


19 thoughts on “City of Bohane — Mad Max Meets The Poor Mouth

  1. I’ve been circling this book for some weeks as “probably one to buy and for keeps not borrowed from the library”.
    End of circling, off to amazon.

  2. That’s the Christmas gift for the sister sorted…thanks Bock. Of course she’d better have it read by the time I show up to “borrow” it…

  3. The Little Kingdoms was bought on a whim in a little bookstore in a college town in New England.. I don’t seek out Irish writers when I rummage in that bookshop but I thought I’d give it a chance.
    I enjoyed it so much that I put it in the mail to my cousin in the city with the note “Read this. It’s so good you can taste the curry chips”.
    I think he’s superb.
    Thanks for alerting me to this book. I’m already looking forward to it.

  4. So, what about if the sister don’t like the book? You comin’ lookin’ for Bock? Eh? Money-back shit an’ all that?

  5. Aaargh! It’s on preorder to the US on Amazon. Release date March 13th. (pre Patrick’s Day?). Luckily I’m going home end of Novemenber.

  6. Sounds good

    wrapped up in Dostoyevski at the moment. Could do with a good laugh although the intricacies of life are laughable enough.

    good fiction makes for a welcome break from the mundane thoughts of the world such as them feckin bankers, wankers and politicians……..but enough of this.

    Back to the fiction……………………

  7. If the sister doesn’t like it? That could be scary. Forget about the refund, send Alain Rolland – I’ll be spear-tackled.

  8. Great book, read it when it came out having waited eagerly after reading his book of short stories…I’m sure Kevin Barry is familiar with Flan but I’d agree with Hillary White in the Irish Independent who drew the comparison with David Simon’s The Wire…’y sketch’ being lifted directly from that series’ use of ‘ya feel’..

    Her review described it as ‘– The Wire, Gangs of New York, the low-life blues yarns of Island-era Tom Waits,. She went on to say ‘Hiberno-English is bastardised fully in the speech of the Bohanians, with Baltimore street slang and the leering lilt of The Rubberbandits coming together to bemusing effect.’ I’d concur with this.

    Kevin Barry clearly realises that modern novels if they are to sell need to focus on dialogue and fast moving scenes rather than long prose passages…the youth of today who are brought up on the Sopranos and action video games insist on cutting to the chase and it s clear that Barry understands this…He s also got a half an eye on someone picking up the film rights me thinks,,,good luck to him cos he s a serious talent.

  9. It’s a healthy cross-fertilisation and it recognises that the novel no longer exists in isolation, if it ever did. Who knows? That’s one for the Clever-Lookin’ Bloak.

  10. At carraig above. Amazon are saying it is £13.37 sterling, before conversion to euro. O Mahonys a bookshop in bohane are offering it for 13.19- free delivery in the 26 counties and they say it is autographed. I’d prefer that….

  11. Started reading your blog to understand what’s happening with the Augustinian Church, and happened on your review of City of Bohane, which I had got in Ennis on last trip, but had not read. So did and was blown away! I could exagerate a bit and say that Kevin Barry is our James Joyce, but he’s in the line-up for sure. Crazy thing is t is not scheduled to be published in the US (I live in CA) until March. And you keep up the good writing, too.

  12. Can’t help you with the church, Lucey. As far as I know they’re just cleaning it up. I was surprised to learn that it was built as recently as 1941.

    A few decent writers have cone out of our town. Michael Collins, for example, is a fine writer, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I understand that he’s currently working on a post-apocalypse novel, of all things.

  13. It’s such a buzz when you find a book you just can’t put down and that sense of looking forward to getting back to it when you do.

    If you are missing that buzz now that you have finished ” City of Bohane ” then Haruki Murakami’s new book 1Q84 is due out very soon, 2 instalments, about 1,000 pages, that should have you overnight in Nancy’s.

  14. Bock-Ooops, I wrote Augustinian but meant your article about the Franciscan Church!
    Norma- I just can’t get into Murakami, but for you I’ll try!

  15. Ridley Walker is one of the all time classics.. Another world, another language and engaging stuff. Read it years ago and still remember it…

  16. I see the Sunday Times [front page] were very pleased to announce the wonderful short story prize win of ‘Sligo’s’ Kevin Barry…I was under the impression he was from Limerick. There you go you learn something new every day.

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