City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

cityofbohaneThe taint that emanates from the Bohane River seeps into the spirits of everyone in the city sprawled around it. Life is short & cheap, in the most Hobbesian sense. Filthy and crass. Children engage in their violent careers around the same age they do in A Clockwork Orange. Amidst the morass, aging gang-boss Logan Hartnett, the Longfella, fields challenges from all sides — vanquished foes resurfacing from twenty years past, disloyal lieutenants looking for a change of leadership, rival gangs getting uppity.

The plot is fun, but its centerpiece of “A patriarch wanes and a successor must arise” is not the sort full of twists, turns, and surprises. The characters aren’t flat or forgettable, but neither are they outstanding or memorable. It’s the style, the tone, the vernacular that shines. I can’t say this enough. Style, style, style. Even the flashy style of clothes the characters are wearing is a consistent aside in near every chapter.

Ol’ Boy wore:

High-top boots expensively clicker’d with gold taps, a pair of hip-hugging jodhpur-style pants in a faded mauve tone, an amount of gold chains, a heavy mink coat to keep out the worst of the hardwind’s assaults and a goatskin beanie hat set pavee-style at the crown of his head.

Truth of it — this was as suave an old dude as you’d come across in the whole of the Bohane creation.

“An amount of gold chains”. I love it.

But it left me in a weird spot. As I enjoyed this dazzling, clever language while it described the brooding, tactile city of Bohane, I found myself comparatively caring very little for the individual characters inhabiting it and the plots/wiles/etc they tangled each other in. When main characters started dropping, I was more like “Hm, OK, I see.” rather than expressing dismay, satisfaction, whatever.

Normally, this would be the sign of a bad or at least mediocre book, but City of Bohane is neither. It’s quite good. Just a bit empty.

The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain

dirtydustDon’t know if I am in the Pound grave, or the Fifteen Shilling grave? Fuck them anyway if they plonked me in the Ten Shilling plot after all the warnings I gave them. The morning I died I calls Patrick in from the kitchen, “I’m begging you Patrick, I’m begging you, put me in the Pound grave, the Pound grave! I know some of us are buried in the Ten Shilling grave, but all the same…”

— first paragraph of the novel and introduction to our protagonist, Catriona Paudeen, newly interred in the cemetery clay.

You see, all the characters in The Dirty Dust are dead. And they will not shut up about it. All the petty squabbles, the timeless gossip, matters of inheritance and land ownership, continue underground. Indeed, Catriona as a corpse, much like in life, is almost entirely motivated by a feud with her hated sister, Nell. Her greatest wish is that no one be buried in the cemetery before her.

The novel is entirely dialogue. Unattributed dialogue. You get the hang of who is speaking by the manner in which they speak. Some are really obvious like the guy who is always bitching about his faulty heart or the guy always cursing Billy the Postman (who married his wife shortly after his death) or the french guy or the guy who starts every sentence with “Bloody tear and ‘ounds, Catriona!”, but sometimes it’s much less clear, often on purpose. Just a cacophony of voices of the dead. On top of that, some characters don’t even get names, but are referred to by their relationship to others — Nora Johnny’s daughter or Tom’s old one, for instance. There’s also two different Tom’s (Redser Tom and Fireside Tom) and Tim Top ‘O the Road. A motley crew. It achieves the desired effect of making you, the reader, feel like you’re in a crowded pub catching pieces of conversation without ever having the full context.

Part of the mystique of The Dirty Dust is that it was written in 40s, in irish, and only just now translated into english, partially due to the mistaken notion that O Cadhain, an ardent IRA supporter, never wished it to be translated. There’s much praise on the cover that it’s the greatest novel ever written in irish. The praise goes further into grandiose ultimate truth territory by declaring that the novel reveals some axiomatic elements of human nature. I guess there’s something to it. By reading some humans gossip, you can extrapolate that, yes, all humans gossip. Feels kind of banal and useless though.

Instead, the real triumph of this novel is how perfectly O Cadhain wrote dialogue that sounds like how people speak. This is no easy feat. The repetition, missayings, inconsistencies, and contradictions of human speech cannot be directly transcribed and remain enjoyable (not to mention sensical) to read. So it’s a real skill to be able to achieve that effect anyway. Behold, an excerpt, at random:

– What kind of cut or shape of woman was she?

– A long tall sally. Blondy hair dripping down her back.

– Earrings?

– Of course.

– Dark eyes?

– I haven’t a clue what kind of eyes she had. I wasn’t thinking about them…

– A broad bright grin?

– She was gawping away at the Master all right. But she wasn’t gawping at me…

– Did you hear where she hangs out?

– No I didn’t. But she’s working at Barrie’s Bookies, if there’s such a joint. The Derry Lough Master and the Priest’s sister are getting married next month. They say he’ll get a new school.

– The one with the pants?

– The very one.

– Isn’t that weird she’d marry him?

– Why so? Isn’t he a fine looking specimen, and he doesn’t touch a drop.

– But all the same. It’s not every man would want to marry a woman who wears trousers. They’d be a bit more pernickety than other women…

– Ah, cop on and get an ounce of sense! My own son is married to a French one in England and you wouldn’t have the least clue on God’s earth what she was gabbling on about no more than the gobshite buried over here. Shouldn’t she be even more pernickety than any one that wears a pair of pants…

There’s no narrative arc. The book could have gone on another three hundred pages. Or three thousand. Or it could have ended two hundred sooner. A bunch of corpses nattering, endlessly, ad infinitum. This is why I’m going to categorize The Dirty Dust as something interesting to read, something I don’t regret reading. But, while sometimes funny or engaging, it wasn’t all that enjoyable. Not one of those books I just can’t wait to dive back into, but one of those books that left an impression somewhere; I can still hear the voices blathering on down below in the dirty dust.

Dubliners by James Joyce

dublinersThe Dublin I visited was a cacophonous jungle of tourism, seemingly as many visitors as locals. The Guinness factory was beer-disney world. A heat wave passed through, so it was humid and sticky. Trinity College, Grafton Street, St. Stevens Green were such a crush of people, it was hard to discern the landscape. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun (though not nearly as much fun as in the western portions of the country), but it was nearly a total flip of James Joyce’s Ireland.

Indeed, Dubliners is a sparse, wet, cold Dublin. Full of sad people in sad vocations in unfulfilling marriages. Alcoholism is like a plague, the pledge a desperate but typically hopeless cure. All of the characters share some great disappointment in their lives — family, passion, work, travel. Everyone is trying to get away and no one appears to be visiting. As a reader, you become suspicious when anyone appears happy because experience has taught you it must be a facade or hope will inevitably be dashed.

I liked it. Mostly. There’s a few duds but standouts like:

The Dead: The longest story and Joyce’s most well known. A joyous celebration followed by dismal ennui.

Araby: A teen boy tries to get his father to drive him to the bazaar to buy a gift for a girl; a perfect picture of adolescent disappointment.

A Mother: A dedicated & shrewd mother maneuvers her daughter into a stage performance; one of those stories that takes a potentially boring and low-stress situation and makes it tense and meaningful.

Yet, my vision of Joyce, not having read any before is influenced by Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, notoriously difficult and esoteric reads. I was actually somewhat disappointed that Dubliners is so straightforward. Joyce uses short, clear sentences that describe the characters and action in precise fashion. The subtext is generally very clear — low hanging metaphorical fruit ala The Great Gatsby.

There’s an ‘Irish’ question that persists today. English influence versus Irish tradition, maintaining the old ways and the old language and discarding anglo-imitation slash adoration. Characters have conflicts like how swell and sophisticated they feel traveling to Paris or London vs. the disdain they receive for never visiting parts of their own country or being able to speak the language. It’s a continuing topic in Irish discourse and there’s been success on the traditional front — more people can speak Irish Gaelic than they could 10-15 years ago.

Dubliners influence on modern writers is clear. Thomas Pynchon is obvious, and the protagonists of A Painful Case or Counterparts could easily be some of the men in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Yet unlike either of those writers, Joyce feels almost entirely free from irony or humorous cynicism; Dubliners is more like an earnest depiction of a very Irish problem. One that I didn’t see on the streets of Dublin but absolutely absorbed through the media (radio especially), temperament, black humor, and people from other parts of the country.