Monday, April 02, 2012

Pete Hamill on Kevin Barry's City of Bohane

Imagined City of Bohane
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

A good review that's a joy to read can leave one a tad leery of reading the book for fear that it might suffer by comparison, but Pete Hamill, in "Auld Times" (NYT, March 29, 2012), has nearly persuaded me to take a chance anyway on Kevin Barry's City of Bohane:
"City of Bohane," the extraordinary first novel by the Irish writer Kevin Barry, is full of marvels. They are all literary marvels, of course: marvels of language, invention, surprise. Savage brutality is here, but so is laughter. And humanity. And the abiding ache of tragedy.

Hamill quotes Barry's novel for a line from the narrator's description of one of the main male characters:
Mouth of teeth on him like a vandalized graveyard but we all have our crosses.

What a great line! Perfection! Especially with that cross image, so characteristic of graveyards and resonant of crucifixion, a hint of tragedy . . . involving a woman, of course. Another central character, also a man, is looking for her, too, returning in his quest a quarter-century after their love, and Hamill introduces Barry's line about that here:
This prodigal son knows where he is. One sentence sets up most of the rest of the novel: "He looked for her in every woman he passed, in every girl."

I think it was Robert Musil in his Man Without Qualities who said that every man seeks his first love in all other women, heaping tragedy upon tragedy in a longing search for what is forever past. Or maybe I said that. But should I read this novel? Hamill thinks so:
Reading this novel, with all of its violence, I also felt a kind of joy exuding from its author. The joy of finding, and sustaining, a voice. The joy of being surprised by his own inventions. I suspect that any reader, including the Irish, will sense that joy. It's about freedom. A warning: the freedom includes the use of much language usually described as "bad." But we have not read this book before. It is not a rehash, not assembled from a kit. In its hurtling prose, we understand again that the bad can be beautiful too.

I'm tempted to order the book just to find out in what way "much language" is "bad" -- graceless, profane, politically incorrect, or . . . ? Whatever that might be, I highly recommend Hamill's entire review, not bad in any way!

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