Night Boat to Tangier
Kevin Barry is the only author I know of (currently working) whose work equally inspires and inundates any aspirant with dread. His latest novel, Night Boat to Tangier (2019) is undoubtedly his best novel yet, and, I'd argue, his strongest fiction, period—which is saying something, given that Kevin Barry's one of the best short story writers alive. His last collection, Dark Lies the Island (2012) is a dense beauty of a book, each story is somehow entirely itself and emotionally distinct, yet together they operate orchestrally, eliciting the sort of amazement (at least in this reader) that one experiences through the very best collections. This is not to say that his last book, Beatlebone (2015), isn't excellent, nor that City of Bohane (2011) his debut novel, wasn't as good as all those awards indicated. No, all of this is simply to point out that Barry is that good; and with Night Boat to Tangier, it's clear he's not only very very good, but he’s getting better.
Night Boat to Tangier—even that title, delicious and loaded—is the story of two old criminals, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, who spend the night in the port of Algeciras, hoping to catch sight of, and connect with, Dilly Hearne, Maurice's estranged daughter. The night itself—and the novel—distends out into the past, and Maurice and Charlie sit while the reader is shown the paths each man took to end up by the other's side—at this dark hour, at this late date. Such a story would be potentially interesting enough regardless of the background of the folks waiting—parents and estranged children with that classic gravitational pull—but Charlie's and Maurice's criminality makes this story somehow (I can't believe I'm saying this) more human, more relatable, than it would otherwise be with some PG-level old folks.
Let's sidebar here for a potentially obvious claim. Most of us operate with some sort of mostly functioning moral compass or guide, but, in our day-to-day lives, those morals aren't really tested in any serious way. Sure, you want to be a good person, so you force yourself to meet the eyes of the homeless you pass; you swallow your ego and listen to folks who you believe haven't earned your attention; you take deep breaths after someone cuts you off in your car or on foot. We all do this in varying, banal ways, but when (for instance) we say things like “I’d die for you,” or whatever, the presumption and hope is very much that we needn’t die. Indeed, if you’re the sort who’s ever said, “I’d do anything for you” to someone else, you (likely) have not really meant it—i.e. you wouldn’t, for instance, commit murder for someone else, or wouldn’t firebomb the prenatal intensive care unit of a hospital, etc. We live moral lives, certainly, but the social norms that gird those morals are fairly narrow, thankfully: we watch movies that offer folks living beyond those societal norms as a sort of pressure-valve release; but most of us wouldn’t do anything like those folks do.
Criminality casts a whole different light and adjusts the fences quite a bit from those moral boundaries most of us have. Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne are old drug dealers and smugglers; they’ve both had drug addictions, have both been in the very darkest corners of extreme moral-compromises due to their jobs/lives as criminals. In fact, it spoils nothing to note that one of them has deeply, physically injured the other in ways you’ll likely literally pull back from the book upon reading (I did). Charlie and Maurice and, presumably, all criminals, have a wider field of moral adjudication to operate on—in The Wire, Omar talks about needing to have a code.
And so part of the delicious joy of Night Boat to Tangier is trying to suss out and bear witness to Charlie and Maurice as they attempt to decipher what their own moral code is. The specifics hardly matter—physical violence is here, monogamy’s not honored, addictive and life-crippling substances are sold, theft is common—but there’s something remarkable in reading about two old, unreformed criminals now trying to find the bits of floating wood that might remain and keep them afloat among the wreckage of the lives they’ve crashed.
Because here’s the thing: Charlie and Maurice are extraordinarily compelling characters; they’re flawed and fucked and terrible, and I’d be deeply nervous if someone like either of them knew my name or address. Yet, the slow-burning love story of their friendship—and love story feels a stretch, but I can’t think of what else it is—is devastating by the end. The specifics of their friendship end up being sort of opaque: one of them has a bad eye, one a bad leg; one is father to Dilly, one isn’t, but they both love her with a terrible ferocity, and neither has seen her in years. Both are violent and are unhesitant to threaten. They aren’t interchangeable, but overlapping in enough ways that one ends up having equal feelings towards each character.
And so they sit, in the port of Algeciras, whiling away a night and a day, awaiting the arrival of Dilly. There is no secret need for either man to see Dilly: these are flawed, hurt men who are, almost despite themselves, deeply sentimental. They just want to see her—for both of them, Dilly is an example of an earlier, more pure sort of love, representative of the lives they once had in which there was more possibility, and time hadn’t quite passed so harshly. It’d be unfair to say if they do end up seeing her, or what ends up happening. The thrust of the story is such that, in a way, Dilly herself is a McGuffin. She’s their purpose, but whether our anti-heroes get the moments with her that they desire is entirely secondary. We, as readers, get a good bit about Dilly, and all I’d say here is that the interaction between all three of them makes complete and satisfying sense.
The plot, the characters, and the emotional stakes—if not secondary—are at least not the primary reason you’re likely to stick with Kevin Barry in general, and Night Boat to Tangier specifically. No: Barry is blowing up language left, right, and center in his books, and the wild excellence of his masterful control is enough to leave you, if not gasping, then at least grasping for some tool to continually underline things.
Again, Barry writes largely about Irish guys, and Night Boat is no different. What this means—has meant in all his books till now—is that dialogue is so shockingly good and dazzling that you begin to force yourself to read slower (which is a real trick in this book, as paragraphs are brief and each is given a full space break from one to the next—some pages have as few as 100 words, which is shorter than lots of “sentences” in other pieces of fiction). As of five pages in, you’ve got the following: “All I’m getting here is the shoulders, Maurice. / Habla Ingles is what you say to him, Charlie.” Later on the same page you’re snorting at “Face on him like a bad marriage, Maurice says,” and then on page 6 Charlie says “You’ve him told, Maurice. You’ve manners put on the boy.” Maybe I’ve some defect that makes such dialogue and dialect so inordinately delicious; regardless of your tastes, it’s impossible to read this without knowing Maurice and Charlie are explicit, exact, locatable people—not real, not out in the world, but as fully realized as any folks you’ve read on the page.
Plus it’s not just the dialogue, and this is where I’d argue Barry’s making the strongest case for his ongoing pre-eminence in English language writers. His non-dialogue writing is just as sharp; this is a guy who can nail details like he’s throwing knives. Page 7 gives us “Through the high windows there is an essay on the complicated light at the port of Algeciras,” which should leave you sucking air in astonishment, and then page 12 offers “An attack dog barks a yard of stars. / A jet from the army base breaks the sky.”
I’ve got 80 different pages marked up in some way in my review copy; all of them are operating at this level. I’m not sure what else to tell you: Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier should be essential reading for anyone with a heart, or anyone with a desire to know what a heart beating desperately, if uncertainly, reads or feels like. It’s a profoundly good book.