Journal of Writing & Environment

Book Review: City of Bohane by Kevin Berry

City of Bohane

by Kevin Berry

Graywolf $25

Reviewed by Meghann Hart

In City of Bohane, the darkly brilliant first novel of Irish writer Kevin Berry, the reader is catapulted into a world of luridly shimmering debauchery, violence, and mirth. Bohane is a river city of brothels and shebeens ruled by the Fancy gang top-goon Logan Hartnett, a dapper albino, aged fifty, with a keen taste for calculated violence. For twenty-five years, ever since Logan the Long Fellow’s ascent to power and the official end of the Lost-time, Bohane has experienced an era of relative calm. However, as the year 2053 begins to cast its shadow, increasingly palpable forces, both internal and external, slink in the back alleys of Bohane, threatening to end the Calm, and with it, the ‘bino’s long rule. There’s no telling what might happen in this centuries-old Irish city, perforated to the bone by piss, blood, and bog air, but you’ll definitely want to sit your arse down and find out. Here are five reasons why:

Logan,  Macu, and the Gant: Love Triangle Divine When  Logan’s old rival the Gant roles into town on the Bohane’s El train—not quite as sad as Gatsby, not nearly as regal as Odysseus—with twenty-five years of love smoldering in his heart and an intense hankering for the pre-Hartnett-Fancy past clouding up his mind like smoke from a dream pipe, you know that trouble’s about to get brewing in no fewer than a thousand dark, dank, and creviced Bohane places. Will the Gant’s appearance aggravate Logan’s old jealousies and continuing delusions of Macu’s infidelity to an intolerable fever pitch, or will Gant wander off into the Big Nothin’—the mysterious bog region that skirts the city—to wallow in the lost sweetnesses of his own sad history, alone? In the hands of Kevin Berry, King of Corkscrews, it’s hard to say.

Fucker Burke and Like Thugs Names like Fucker Burke are particularly fun in that they make sentences, such as the following, literarily possible: “ ‘Like I know the fucking bogs from fuckology,’ Said Fucker.” Together, Fucker Burke and Wolfie Stanners are Logan Hartnett’s right-hand men. In their early teens, this duo lit many a hapless Bohane youth on fire. At seventeen, they have begun to realize whole new levels of viciousness, and they aren’t alone in their aspirations. Clad from head to toe in leather jumpsuits of varying shades is the beautifully malevolent Jennie Ching of the Ho Pee Ching Oh-Kay Koffee Shoppe. Berry renders these Fancy three with Tarantinoesque style, complete with lingering head-to-toe shots of cigarillo bedizened mouths, ass-kicking boots, and, of course, weapons. The young of Bohane may squabble to emulate these feral-eyed fashionistas, but only one young gangster will ascend to the Bohane throne.

Darkest River of Lushest Lingo So many current literary novels suffer from an extreme poverty of the surging, cut-the-mother-fucker loose kind of language that the avid reader longs for. Not so in Kevin Berry’s work. This writer has a river shooting straight out the tip of his pen. Much of Bohane is written in dialect that is distinctly Irish, yet other. Here’s a sample, courtesy, once more, of our friend Fucker: “If ye askin’ me,” said Fucker, “Logan H., he gone seriously fuckin’ para, like…But what’s this old Gant cunt gonna go and do on him? We got the juju over Logan, like? He’s well-protected, the Long Fella.”  This novel carries, in the crude integrity of its language, the quality that separates brilliant novels from lesser ones: spirit.

The City Itself  Bohane is not merely a figment of Berry’s very fecund imagination, but a culture, a map, a heartbeat—it is a place in the richest sense of that word.  In the business districts of Smoketown, Back Trace, and Newtown,“toosh” is sold, dream pipes are smoked, and meat is ground into Bohane’s favorite food: sausages.  Somewhere high above the sausage-making and whoring, amidst bluffs and clouds, loom the Northside Rises, where the “Norries” reside, seething with bitterness because the wind blows a bit too harsh in their part of town. A ways down from the Rises, to the left of the business district, stand the old, creaking manses of the Beauvista, the long-time home of Logan and other city elites. And on the margins of Bohane society, in the mysterious bog lands of the Big Nothin,’ live the “pikeys,” an old minority group of the region who loosely resemble the Roma. Among these culturally diverse districts, tensions have long been mounting. In a city so divided, who will conquer?

The Lost-time According to its long-suffering inhabitants, Bohane hasn’t always been such a macabre mess. There exists a Lost-time that the old of the town speak of—a sweet time, in which the finest slices of apple pie that ever existed were pushed across bakery countertops, and black pudding was served up by the local butcher as black pudding should be served up. It is this time that draws the Gant back to Bohane after twenty-five years of exile. But there is a new era afoot in the city, an era of skin-tight leather suites and ass-kickin’ stiletto boots, reminding Gant, and Logan, too, that all times—especially the good ones—must ultimately become lost.

My favorite lines of prose from Bohane are the first dark conjurings that make all else possible:  “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A backwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.”