The Short Version: Logan Hartnett, leader of the Hartnett Fancy, is struggling a bit. The Norries are getting rowdy and spoiling for a fight, his lieutenants are starting to cast eyes towards ascension, his missus wants him out of the game, and his ma’ can’t be trusted. When rumor hits him that the man he once deposed is back in town, it sets off an interesting year in the city of Bohane – yes it does.
The Review: What an exceptional novel.
Remember the first time you read A Clockwork Orange? How strange it seemed at first and then how your brain seemed to shift to accommodate the language of Alex and his droogs? It is no small stretch to draw a parallel between that novel and this – in fact, Mr. Barry does it himself at the end of the novel, musing on how that novel was about the Britain of the ’60s and how his novel is, if he is to be bold, about the Ireland of the ’00s. But it’s in the language that you really see the connection. Barry’s creations speak with a thick slang, loaded up with lilting accents – and yet, within pages, you find that your brain has made that shift and that the words now all make sense as though they were the ones you’d been raised upon and not some future invention.
To top it all off, Barry isn’t just inventive with his language but exceptionally gifted with it as well. His collection Dark Lies the Island, out later this month, gave me proof of that (and I have little doubt his other collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, will do the same) – but to spin your words out to a full-length tale is another matter entirely, let alone to spin one that is so rambunctiously creative. There’s a hypnotic quality to this novel, an almost deceptively dangerous one – as though you might find yourself reading just a few pages more and then suddenly having missed your stop on the subway (as has happened to me with this book, twice). I honestly feel as though my tongue is tripping up, like I can’t possibly do this book justice. I count myself (rather egotistically) as having a decent enough way with words but Barry’s writing is sheer magic. I mean that, seriously: there is magic here.
It may be disconcerting to some readers to slowly realize that this book is set in the future – 2054-55, to be exact. (Or is it 53-54? Either way.) There’s reference to someone having been born in 2011 – what a strange thought, eh? And The Gant and the ‘bino – they aren’t much older. Kids not into their teens will be running the Back Trace of Bohane – and all of us will be lost to the lost time. Barry manages to keep his story planted firmly in reality and in the possible while spinning out something completely new and unexpected. The scenery reminded me, as I read, a bit of the game Machinarium.
There aren’t any machines or anything like the hero of that game to be found here – this isn’t that kind of future – but the slightly cartoonish, saturated colors and the sense of the grime that nonetheless carries a beautiful quality about it… yeah. It just felt right.
Speaking of beauty in the grime, damn but these characters wear some nice digs. Barry’s narrative voice (which he deploys sneakily and stealthily and which, you come to realize, isn’t as third-person as you’d believed) stops the action on the reg to let us know just how fine these characters look and, far from being annoying, it is a delight. These characters know that their clothing is not just for show but it can also be armor, of a psychic type. It tells us as much about these individuals as their words and actions do – and I love how easy Barry makes it look. Quite a difficult task, to take something that could be (in a lesser writer’s hands) used as a crutch and make it an equally valid tool in one’s belt.
In the afterword, Barry calls this a bit of a New Western and in some ways, that’s quite true. There is, undoubtedly, an element of Western tales here – but there’s also city-tales of yore in the mix. Gangs of New York and West Side Story have their place in the inspirative gumbo – a section devoted to a massive clash between the Hartnett Fancy and the eight-family army of Norries especially. And there lies perhaps the single most potent image from the novel, from a novel full of potent and beautiful images: Logan Hartnett, the albino himself, standing at the back of his massed army with a grey top hat and a sharp suit with a rope slung over his shoulder and a smoke hanging from his lip, following calmly and almost jauntily in the wake of the chaos before him. I see it, in my mind’s eye, more clearly than I have an image from a book in a while – and there are so many more images to be hand here. Jenni Ching, sassing The Gant while they’re at it in his trailer. Wolfie and Fucker (the guy’s name, no apologies for language) patrolling the streets like a young Croup and Vandemar. Macu and The Gant’s reunion. The various bars and dives our characters drop into. Girlie’s apartments.
And the resolution of the novel – which I will not ruin, although I’m sure it comes as little surprise (and the surprise of it isn’t the point, not really), but I would like to speak to for a moment – is a thing of beauty in and of itself. Barry breaks up the line like he’s writing poetry, breaking a sentence into several paragraph pieces – short, like a camera whipping around under Alfonso Cuarón’s direction – and you register that this particular moment of the story has come to a tidy and discreet conclusion but that the world he has created will spin madly on without any of us being there to read it, necessarily. That, my friends, is the truest test of an author’s talent: to create something that will exist not within the author’s imagination or the reader’s but rather that will continue to be there in the world for long after the book is collecting dust on shelves physical and mental both.
Rating: 6 out of 5. Just an exceptional piece of writing. The invention never feels forced, never feels overly showy – despite how incredibly showy it might be; the man created an entire slang language, for the sake of the Sweet Baba Jay. Instead, he has breathed life into a story and city as (I daresay) only he could’ve done. This feels intensely personal and unique – and shows us an author who will, I have no doubt, come to be regarded as one of the very best to’ve ever bent his pen towards a trembling blank page. His two short story collections are out this month and Bohane is on shelves. I so very rarely do this – but I implore you, with all speed, to acquire all three. You will not regret it.