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.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimar McBride

A Girl IsRather than try and explain the style of this novel, let’s read an excerpt:

I do not want. I do not want to hear this. But suddenly it’s clawing all over me. Like flesh. Terror. Vast and alive. I think I know it. Something terrible is. The world’s about to. The world’s about to. Tip. No it isn’t. Ha. Don’t be silly. Stupid. Fine. Fine. Everything will be. Fine. Chew it lurks me. See and smell. In the corner of my eye. What. Something not so good.

And that’s one of the more comprehensible paragraphs. A staccato rush of the unnamed protagonist’s thoughts and experiences, trapped inside her head which is likewise trapped inside a cruel, cruel world.

Did I like it? Yes and no and. Yes. Sometimes, it’s too difficult to follow and too much is lost. Especially in the opening chapters where our half-formed girl is literally so, being a foetus in her mother’s womb while her older brother is operated on for a brain tumor. Elsewhere, it’s beautiful. It drives the prose into a breakneck pace even when not much is physically happening. When the protagonist’s mind is racing, the language itself delivers the same sense.

That’s the first most striking thing about the novel. The second is its uncompromisingly brutal and harrowing plot.

At first I thought this was going to be another iteration of the timeworn tale of stoic Irish working class misery. Overbearing catholic mother. Absent father. Financial issues. Social issues. Small town woes. But no, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Early in the novel, at age thirteen, the protagonist is raped by her uncle and the novel sidesteps into sexual abuse and its fallout. Make no mistake: this isn’t a side plot or a stepping stone or a little dash of thematic oomph, this is a book about relentless trauma and never once is there a bright side or an upside or a silver lining, but just a constant plunging fall, from chasm to cliff to chasm to cliff, cut and bloodied and tripping further and further while you wonder how it can even get any worse. But, of course, before the novel ends and it does get worse, by that point you already knew exactly how it would.

I desperately hoped it would be otherwise.

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.