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Review: City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

'Unforgettably wonderful," Joseph O'Connor declares on the cover of Kevin Barry's keenly awaited first novel, and, as if that weren't enough, he deems it "an electrifying masterpiece" from "a writer of rarest gifts".

Other contributors to the cover are hardly less enthusiastic.

"Hilarious and unpredictable," says Roddy Doyle. "Destined to be a true literary star," predicts Irvine Welsh, while American author David Guterson thinks Barry so good that "nothing can stop him" and Liverpool writer Niall Griffiths insists that the book -- "an extreme adventure in pure language and fictional daring", according to Hugo Hamilton -- "should be met with parties and parades and pyrotechnics."

Such encomiums, no matter how extravagantly expressed, are guaranteed to quicken the anticipation of anyone who marvelled at the 41-year-old Limerick-born writer's first story collection, There Are Little Kingdoms (2007), and at the equally quirky stories that have subsequently appeared in magazines and anthologies. All the more a pity, then, that City of Bohane, for all its surface brilliance, turns out to be such a letdown.

Bohane is a fictional city on the west coast of Ireland (a map inside the back cover details its topography) and if has its respectable citizens the reader isn't introduced to them, the author instead favouring a collection of scumbags -- gang leaders, brothel keepers, fixers, psychopaths -- who are battling for territorial dominance.

Chief among these are Logan Hartnett (aka the Long Fella, aka the Albino), who's fighting to maintain control over his neighbourhood, and his long-time nemesis Gant Broderick, who's returned to Bohane after 25 years in exile across the Irish sea and who still harbours a passion for Hartnett's wife, Macu.

Trouble is in the air, with local teens Wolfie Stanners and Fucker Burke lined up on Hartnett's side, alluring Chinese siren Jenni Ching endeavouring to have it both ways, and Hartnett's 90-year-old mother, Girly, up to her own devious machinations.

The author depicts the phantasmagorical scene with vivid exhuberance, and Bohane itself -- a dirty, dangerous city of "grogshops" and "chinkee dives" and "hopper bars" and "hoor parlours" -- is evoked in such loving detail that you'd swear you'd been there, if only in one of your more delirious dreams.

However, the storyline (most of which concerns the long build-up to an all-out feud) is so thin as to be almost nonexistent, while the characters remain one-dimensional cutouts, giving no sense of having an independent existence beyond the cartoon straitjacket into which they've been squeezed.

Indeed, though there are echoes of Patrick McCabe at his most fantastical and also of the darkly imagined cities of Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, it's the aura of the comic book that prevails, with nothing ultimately for real and thus nothing at stake and therefore little for the reader to genuinely care about.

Nor will those seeking a pertinent fable of a contemporary or future Ireland feel much rewarded. Bohane may feature a De Valera Street, a Kevin Barry Square and tower blocks named after Louis MacNeice, Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney, but these register as nothing more than whimsical namechecks conjured up on the spur of the moment and with no resonance beyond that.

Indeed, there's no trace here of an Ireland with which any reader might be familiar -- the action might just as well be set in an imagined Scotland or Wales or wherever. And while the publisher's blurb points out that the book is set 40 years from now, that's only cursorily mentioned in the novel after 160 pages and seems entirely irrelevant.

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There are other oddities, notably a first-person narrator who makes his presence felt every so often, but so glancingly that you wonder what he's doing there, and by the end his function, if he has one, remains unclear.

Barry has a remarkable talent, as is evident from his short stories, but a novel requires particular qualities -- a satisfying structure, a mastery of the long, developing narrative and complex characters of psychological and emotional depth -- that aren't essential, or sometimes even required, in the shorter form. On this showing, the author has yet to command these qualities.

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