Night Boat to Tangier
by Kevin Barry (2019)
Doubleday (2019)
272 pp

At the port of Algeciras, in October 2018

Would you say there’s any end in sight, Charlie?

I’d say you nearly have an answer to that question already, Maurice.

Two Irishmen sombre in the dank light of the terminal make gestures of long-sufferance and woe– they are born to such gestures, and offer them easily.

Kevin Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, won the Dublin Literary Prize and his second, Beatlebone, the Goldsmiths Prize, so the advent of his third is potentially a major event. Both of the two previous books impressed me in parts, but City of Bohane, although memorably atmospheric, didn’t succeed for me as a story, and Beatlebone required rather more interest in John Lennon than I had, and I was unconvinced by the metafictional but rather artificial authorial intervention. In that regard, although imperfect, Night Book to Tangier was more successful for me.

The novel opens, as per the opening quote, with two ageing Irish gangsters, in their early 50s according to the calendar but rather older based on life experiences, waiting in the dingy terminal at Algeciras in Spain, where ferries travel back and forth to Tangier.

One of Barry’s strength is his visual descriptions and he beautifully conjures the pair:

Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond sit on a bench just a few yards west of the hatch. They are in their low fifties. The years are rolling out like tide now. There is old weather on their faces, on the hard lines of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths. But they retain — just about — a rakish air.

Maurice Hearne’s jaunty, crooked smile will appear with frequency. His left eye is smeared and dead, the other oddly bewitched, as though with an excess of life, for balance. He wears a shabby suit, an open-necked black shirt, white runners and a derby hat perched high on the back of his head. Dudeish, at one time, certainly, but past it now. You’ve him told, Maurice. You’ve manners put on the boy.

Charlie Redmond? The face somehow has an antique look, like a court player’s, medieval, a man who’d strum his lute for you. In some meadowsweet lair. Hot, adulterous eyes and again a shabby suit, but dapper shoes in a rusted-orange tone, a pair of suede-finish creepers that whisper of brothels, also a handsome green corduroy neck-tie. Also, stomach trouble, bags like graves beneath the eyes, and soul trouble.

The two are there looking for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, who they haven’t seen for three years but believe to be in with a company of “crusties,” and they’ve received word she may be crossing to or from Tangier tonight, so they approach those in the terminal asking after her:

She’s a small girl. She’s a pretty girl. She’d probably still have the dreadlocks. Dreadlocks, you know? Bob Marley? Jah Rastafari? She might have a dog or two with her, I’d say. Dog on a rope kind of thing? She’s a pretty girl. She’s twenty-three years of age by now. She’ll be dreadlock Rastafari.

You know what we’re going to need, Charlie?

What’s that, Moss?

We’re going to need the Spanish for crusty.

(they are later told by two such “crusties” that “the Spanish for crusty, she says, is perroflauta. It means a-dog-and-a-flute, Leonor says . . . They say it as a curse, Leonor says. Because they don’t like us, Ana says. They say we’re dirty. They don’t want the camps. They don’t want no dogs. That’s why we go to Maroc.”)

Much of the novel’s pleasure comes from the bickering and bantering between the pair, still menacing as they demonstrate by terrifying the first crusty they spot. Indeed at times this part of the novel read more as a play than a novel, which is indeed how it began its life per an interview with Barry just after he won the Goldsmiths Prize (here).

On the desk in his shed is a play called Night Boat to Tangier, a commission for Dublin’s ­Abbey Theatre, about an Irishman in Spain searching for his daughter, who has run off with “a band of crusties”. Barry is increasingly drawn to drama, which doesn’t rely on the tedious scaffolding of prose fiction. He shows me an A4 pad on which he has drawn stick men in an attempt to make the page his stage.

But the novel also takes us back in episodic flashbacks to their past and how they got here. Drug smuggling was their game, although that has dried up.The money now was in the movement of people, we’re told a couple of times – which links in rather nicely with the people smuggling in the MBI longlistedThe Death of Murat Idrissi, in which the port of Algeciras and the Tangier ferry also plays a key role.

Their history takes us through the “seven distractions — love, grief, pain, sentimentality, avarice, lust, want-of-death,” and we learn of Maurice’s turbulent relationship with his wife, caused by his lifestyle:

The internecine strife of Maurice and Cynthia. More than twenty years she had given it. The sleeplessness and pain of the long absences, the hot lurches of emotion, the sudden reversals of fortune, the endless pleadings, the slow relentings, the golden times of morphiate heaven, the atrocities on both sides, the shock tactics, and the giddy joy of their lavish sexual reunions – it was all done with now.

And the rather unconventional childhood of their daughter Dilly:

When she was a child, there would be callers at strange hours. Men in hats, and laughing women, and sometimes there were raised voices, and sometimes singing. All the lurchy moves and late-night exits – we’ve got to do the splits again, Dilly, will you pack what you need in your dinosaur bag?

In the back story, Barry’s gift for description comes to the fore, both the pithy one liner (a comment that a site chosen to build some new houses is rather exposed to the wind brings the retort, “It’s the West of Ireland, he said. There’s a tendency to fucken wind.”), as well as the more lyrical, for example this towards the novel’s end:

The peninsula ran its flank along the line of the coast road. The mountain absorbed the evening light and glowed morbidly. A roadside grotto showed the blue virgin. For the souls of the vehicular dead. By ten the moon was visible and drew her strangely. A vivid, late-summer moon. A xanthic was the word moon. She stopped the car and buzzed the window to hear the breath of sea; a strimmer vexed late in a high field; somewhere too the vixen screamed. On the ribs of the sea the last of the evening sun made bone-white marks. The hills for their part vibrated royally. It was close to night and oh-so-quiet again.

As well as Barry’s signature from City of Bohane, the clothing description, here Charlie on his first trip to Spain to arrange a drug deal from Morocco:

He wore a two-piece velour Gio-Goi tracksuit, a Kangol slouch hat and some kind of Brazilian — fucken Brazilian — trainers. The soles were made out of virgin rubber, Charlie had confided, with soft wonder in his voice. Charlie every month bought The Face and i-D magazines, spent hours on the fashion layouts, poring over them, with an expert’s keen and rueful air.

Are you trying to look like you’re involved in the fucken drug business? Maurice said. Drug business? Charlie said. I’m import– export. I’ve flown in for a trade show.

It’s an atmospheric novel with a simple but ultimately powerful story as we come to understand why Tilly left home, and why the two men are there.

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