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“It is a tremendously Hibernian dilemma—a broken family, lost love, all the melancholy rest of it—and a Hibernian easement for it is suggested: fuck it, we’ll go for an old drink.” There is perhaps no better conspectus or cure for the plight Maurice Hearne, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s latest novel, Night Boat To Tangier, finds himself in, than the one he puts forth near the beginning of the novel.
Maurice, along with his oldest friend and partner in crime, Charlie Redmond, two of Limerick and Cork cities most redoubtable importers of Moroccan hash, are in the Port of Algeciras in southern Spain, looking for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly Hearne, who is believed to be either en route to, or returning from, Tangier. She has been neither seen, nor heard from, in three years. She is twenty-three. Like an incantation, Maurice and Charlie remind us that she is “…a small girl…a pretty girl.”
The night will be long. They will share stories and many bottles of cheap Cava as they wait for the rest of the night boats to arrive.
Told through a series of flashbacks but anchored in time by a single night, the novel will be Maurice’s long, dark night of the soul. In the course of it, he will stare out into the stygian waters towards Africa and relive in his mind the successes and the outrageous fortune which has befallen him in the past two and a half decades. He will begin the gnarled process of untangling the facts surrounding the crippling depression which ran his father into the ground, his fraught and ambiguous relationship with Charlie, the long, hot Iberian nights spent shooting up heroin into his toes with his mistress, Karima, the dissolution of his marriage, the early death of his wife, Cynthia, and the disappearance of his daughter.
The Port of Algeciras is the perfect waiting place for Maurice and Charlie. The men have spent countless hours there throughout the years. It is haunted and between worlds; there, the chasm of the present sits uneasily between the weight of the past and the unknowable, unfurling folds of the future.
They will corral some young crusties—or perroflautas (dog and a flute) as they are known in Spain—to uncover what information they can about Dilly’s whereabouts. To their first captive, Benny, a young guy from England, with a dog named Lorca whom they threaten to behead, they warn that they are “truly fucking dreadful men.”
Though just past fifty, these men have seen it all. When times were good, there wasn’t enough oily Black Riffian hashish they could pump in to appease the anxious people of the Southwest of Ireland, or enough bars or property they could clean their money with. At their nadir, they were being driven mad by paranoia, hiding out in small country villages in fear for their lives, not to mention dealing with the financial strain of having two enormous shipments of prime Maroc confiscated by Spanish police.
The spectre of the prodigal daughter looms large over the novel. We read, hoping on the one hand that father and daughter may be reunited, and on the other that Dilly may escape the life that seems fated to her through association. She is keenly aware that she has been primed for a certain kind of life. The first years of her life were awash with her parents’ fighting, as well the paranoia that comes with the proximity to such large amounts of drugs. They learned to take turns to feed their habits around the child. At one point, Maurice wonders “was it drugs in the months of pregnancy had the child staring up out of the bouncer like a fucking zombie?”
Stylistically, Night Boat To Tangier, is akin to the form that Barry forged in Beatlebone. In between the sentences, and short, highly imagistic paragraphs, there is much white space on the page for Barry’s creations to breathe. Poetic and fragmented, Barry’s sentences leave their mark on you.
Barry is strangely attuned to the myriad ways in which prior claims seem to have been made upon the soul of a place. When, in an attempt to rinse some of his money, Maurice purchases a site to develop houses, he is horrified to learn that the site is purportedly home to a fairy fort. Whisperings come from the town that the land is untouchable. Though he tries to brush it aside, it gets the better of him. Accidents begin to accrue on site; arguing with Cynthia comes to a boil; another shipment of drugs is seized by the Spanish police. Staring at the stalled building site, Maurice thinks:
He wanted to leave the place again but was rooted to it now. Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Its haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.
The novel is unflinching in recollecting the violence Maurice and Charlie inflict on others and themselves. At the beginning of one of the novel’s most climactic scenes, set inside of the Judas Iscariot pub in Cork City, the narrator notes that outside of the pub, “the black surface of the river moved the lights of the city about. It was hard not to believe sometimes that we were just the reflection, and that the true life existed down there in the dark water.” After reading the chapter, the idea that true life, a different or better life, was elsewhere, seems irrefutably true.
For all of the book’s sincere darkness, there is also an acerbic and revitalising stream of humour running through it. If one feels at times the presence of Messrs. Joyce and Beckett in here—Maurice even quotes a line from the ‘Ithaca’ chapter of Ulysses, and the pair’s long night is heavily reminiscent of some of the most haunted Beckettian creations—it is the Ireland made strange by Flann O’Brien that Barry seems to draw much of his munition from.
Like O’Brien, Barry has an almost otherworldly sensitivity to the absurdities and rhythms of Hiberno-English. If one of the highlights of the Goldsmiths Award-winning Beatlebone was the inimitable voice of Cornelius, a variant of it fuels this novel’s engine. Here is Maurice recounting a time spent living with his mistress in Cadiz:
We used to make love all night, Charles. You were younger then. And you know what she’d do for me in the mornings? I’m all ears. She’d feed me sparrows, Charlie. They’d fucken ate anything, wouldn’t they? This crowd. Gorrión! Sparrow!If it’s not nailed down, they’ll ate it. Into the frying pan, down the gullet. But it must be class of greasy first thing, Moss? A little sparrow? Greasy like John Travolta. And not a lot of atein’ on them bones, it has to be said.
At the novel’s end, the structure, which for the first half of the book very carefully and opaquely conceals and reveals its secrets, has quickened and settled into itself, unashamedly baring its bleeding heart for us on the page. By this stage, Barry’s project seems less about making us wonder whether or not crime pays, but rather about the ways in which people pay for, and live with, their decisions. As the night stretches on indeterminately, and the frequency of the boats begins to wane, we get the sense that time is running out for all of the involved parties.
In Spain, where we leave Maurice, who is still reliving how everything began, and how everything began to go wrong, it is fitting that the Spanish verb esperar, means not only ‘to wait,’ but ‘to hope.’