In an afterword to the paperback edition of his first novel, City of Bohane (2011), Kevin Barry writes, “I work primarily from the ear…. If you can get the speech, I believe, you can get the soul.” He’s talking about a book in which he not only got the speech but invented a whole new language, the argot of the imagined metropolis of Bohane: a densely populated, catastrophically polluted, anarchic corner of the near future. Part Irish-inflected English, part rap lyric, part Clockwork Orange, part Hibernian bard, it’s how the street punks, mob bosses, alpha women, and warring gangs communicate in this dystopian western Ireland hellhole, in districts named Smoketown, the Back Trace, and Big Nothin’, “a place of thorn and stone and sudden devouring swampholes.”
Barry’s new novel, Night Boat to Tangier, seems equally capacious, though it’s set in a much smaller space: the sinister ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras and the unsettling orbit of two dazzlingly verbal, volatile, heartbroken Irish thugs, Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne: “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.” Veteran hashish smugglers rendered redundant by hydroponics and homegrown weed, Maurice and Charlie haunt the terminal because they believe that Maurice’s beloved daughter, Dilly—whom he hasn’t seen for three years—may be departing or arriving on a ferry to, or from, North Africa.
As in his second novel, Beatlebone (2015), and two story collections, There Are Little Kingdoms (2007) and Dark Lies the Island (2012), it’s Barry’s voice that propels us through the work, through paragraphs punctuated by turns of phrase that deliver little jolts of pleasure. Like their author, his characters are aware of the implications and ironies of language. In the story “Wistful England,” a young man reflects on the signage in his neighborhood: “‘Humps for Half a Mile’ a road sign read, warning of the traffic-calming measures that were in place, but the words had a metaphorical resonance. The house that he lived in was not a house in which he might casually talk of metaphors.” The hero of “To the Hills” despises the words relationship and partner: “Partner, I don’t know, it makes it sound like a badminton team.”
In Beatlebone, John Lennon—in search of an island off the west coast of Ireland (which the real-life John Lennon bought in 1967)—finds a wardrobe full of suits that belonged to his driver’s dead father: “He takes one out. It is very old and heavy. A word appears in his mouth—worsted. An old-fashioned word—two slow farmer syllables. Wor-sted. West Country farmer. Pebbles in the mouth. Woor-sted.” And Maurice recalls how a troubling unease with words preceded a descent into madness:
He’d make words on his lips and not know where they came from. He started to see the sky as a kind of membrane. His head felt like it was the size of a planet. The sky was just a casing for his pulsing brain and it was too thin. He might explode like a star.
Maurice and Charlie aren’t just career criminals; they’re comedians, philosophers, poets, and social critics. Their conversation has rhythm and snap; it’s funny, lyrical, obscene, metaphysical, unflaggingly alive. The novel’s omniscient narrative voice sounds so much like its heroes that we feel as if we’re seeing the terminal through their eyes: “A blind man roils in night sweat and clicks his teeth to sell lottery tickets like a fat, rattling serpent—he’s doing nothing for the place.”
Much of the novel is in dialogue, interrupted by passages of description and memories of lost youth, lost love, and the drug trade in which Maurice and Charlie earned and squandered fortunes: “I’m not saying we were down a coalmine, Maurice…I’m not saying we were digging the roads. But there was a lot of work and a lot of travelling and there was a great deal of danger and annoyance.” The two former partners and romantic rivals are great talkers, on subjects ranging from witchcraft to masturbation, communicating with dogs, food, home design, numerology, violence, elves, soccer, how Bob Marley might have forestalled his final illness. They want to know the Spanish word for “crusty,” their term for the young people who migrate between Spain and Morocco with their dreadlocks and rucksacks, a tribe to which they think Dilly might belong. “It’s perroflauta,” a Spanish woman tells them, “it means a-dog-and-a-flute”—a derogatory reference to the instruments and animals the “crustaceans” bring with them.
Maurice and Charlie consider how they’d fare in an Algeciras jail. They discuss whether a line of poetry comes from Shakespeare or Stevie Wonder and why their business did so well at home:
Because if Irish people are martyrs for the drink, they’re worse again for the dope, once they get the taste for it, because it eases the anxiety and we’re a very anxious people.
Why wouldn’t we be, Moss? I mean Jesus Christ in the garden, after all that we been through. Dragging ourselves around that wet tormented rock on the edge of the black Atlantic for the months and years never-ending and the long gawpy faces screamin’ for the light and the jaws operatin’ on wires and the pale little yellow arses hanging out the back end of us?
Barry’s control of tone is so assured that he can turn a fragment of autobiography, confession, and apology into a terrifying threat as Maurice bullies a “crusty” youth who he hopes might have seen Dilly somewhere in Spain and might know where she is:
First off, Ben? I’m sorry I bit your shoulder. There was no call for it. It’s shocking behaviour. But I was badly brought up, you know? I didn’t have your advantages. I’d say your old man was an accountant or something, was he? Or did he run a leisure center…. But me? I came off a terrace street the sun never shone on. I was put out working at four years of age. In Cork city. I was a bus conductor, actually, on the number eight, St. Luke’s Cross direction. But that’s all a long time ago now, and those were the sweet days of my youth and they’re not coming back. Oh, no, they are not. And never did I think I’d wind up the way I am now. A man that’s heartbroken. A man that hasn’t seen his Dilly in three fucken years. Imagine what that does to a fella? But I apologise again, Benny. I do. Are we on speaking terms?
Benny half nods; he’s very scared.
There’s not much action in the terminal, and the men do their best to cut the boredom, terrorizing poor Ben, harassing the clerk at the information window, and making their aggressive presence felt: “Charlie’s smile is, of its own right, an enlivened thing. It travels the terminal as though disembodied from him. It leaves a woven lace of hysterical menace in its wake.”
No matter how funny and smart, abrasive and irreverent the dialogue is, we’re never allowed to forget that “their talk is a shield against feeling,” and that Charlie and Maurice require especially thick armor against their emotions. Early on, Barry enumerates “the seven distractions—love, grief, pain, sentimentality, avarice, lust, want-of-death.” The men have blown through all seven and emerged with a load of regret. Maurice is missing an eye and Charlie is lame in one leg. They’ve seen so much bloodshed and fear and sampled so much of their product that they’ve both done time in a mental hospital. They’ve failed Maurice’s wife, Cynthia, and Dilly, the woman and the child they both loved. In fact, they’ve failed at everything, even dealing drugs: “The money no longer is in dope. The money now is in people. The Mediterranean is a sea of slaves.” If City of Bohane uses the horrors of an imagined future to reflect on the present moment, Night Boat to Tangier is about the present and the past, about memory and loss, which is partly why it’s a sadder and more beautiful book.
The novel is divided into brief sections, sometimes just a sentence long, separated by space breaks. The unconventional paragraphing compels us to focus; there’s no room for the mind to wander in the midst of a long passage of prose. That close attention is essential, since Barry often reminds us of how much can turn on a single word. Charlie, who had an affair with Cynthia, explains that they conducted much of their romance in an out-of-the-way tavern. “You know that mostly all we’d do is sit and talk to each other,” Charlie says, to which Maurice replies, “It’s the mostly is the knife in my heart, Charlie.” Something similar occurs when Maurice comes home to find Charlie and Cynthia asleep in bed. “Is this going on again, he said, but quietly, and they did not wake.” It’s the “again” that comes as a surprise to the reader—and tells us all we need to know about an affair that we, like Maurice, hadn’t realized was ongoing.
Often in Barry’s work a love triangle fuels the drama. His characters are wildly romantic, their love lives operatically intense—“I fully accept there’s a thing called love, Maurice says. Haven’t I been half my born days up to my sucker eyeballs in it?” Their affairs are frequently accelerated by the chemical interaction between narcotics and passion: “The first six months on heroin with Cynthia were the most beautiful days of all time. Love and opiates—this is unimprovable in the human sphere. Like young gods they walked out.”
The men at the center of these fictions both do and don’t know that the women they adore are smarter, tougher, and certainly more clear-sighted than they are. City of Bohane features one of the great crime matriarchs in literature, an octogenarian named Girly who lies in bed with the curtains drawn, drinking and taking pills, watching films of vintage musicals, longing for the glory days of Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood—and waiting for her moment to seize control of the blighted city. Maurice and Charlie defer to Cynthia, who masterminds Maurice’s business even as she foresees the disaster that awaits them: “She had a way of talking that made him realise he would not find a way out. She let him know there was no way to escape from himself. She could see what was coming.”
Two Irish guys waiting and waiting, more or less in the middle of nowhere—of course one thinks of Beckett and his ability to pack hilarity, despair, resignation, and hope into a single sentence, as well as his delighted familiarity with the body’s unruly rebellions. Charlie’s laments about the damage that an octopus meal has done to his digestion would have made Beckett proud, and the novel’s opening lines—“Would you say there’s any end in sight, Charlie? I’d say you nearly have an answer to that question already, Maurice”—could have been spoken by Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon.
But in other ways Barry’s project is the opposite of Beckett’s efforts to see how much could be left out: motivation, geography, description. We know so little about Molloy’s appearance that he could be a brain speaking to us from a jar. Barry’s impulse, by contrast, is to put everything in: history, time, place, physical detail. Early in City of Bohane, a gangster is described as having a “mouth of teeth on him like a vandalised graveyard but we all have our crosses.” After a few pages, we feel we could pick Maurice and Charlie out of a lineup:
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….
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 his eyes, and soul trouble.
One of the dark jokes running through Beckett’s work is how little his characters remember; Maurice and Charlie’s problem is that they can’t forget. Their memories surface not in chronological order, as in a biography, but prompted by a remark, a sight, or an event, as they do in life. Barry trusts the reader to order and arrange these scattered glimpses of the past, to reconstruct the stages of Maurice and Charlie’s career, and to be moved by their tentative probings of the deepest scars, most of them inflicted by the collapse of Maurice and Cynthia’s marriage and the defection of Dilly.
The novel takes its epigraph from Lorca: “In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.” Death—and the dead—are never far from Maurice and Charlie’s thoughts. Maurice mourns his father’s fatal decline into madness, a downturn signaled by an obsessive fondness for the songs of Hank Williams. Cynthia’s death is the wound from which Maurice will never recover:
And now from the vantage of his years a terrible swoon comes down on him; Cynthia, for a moment, descends all the way through him. This is not a rare occurrence. He will never lose the feeling of love that they had together, or the nausea of its absence.
Hate is not the answer to love; death is its answer.
The two aging gangsters contemplate their own mortality, calculating how many dogs they will live long enough to own: “I’d get a dog again, Charlie says, but I don’t know if I have the length of a small dog left in me. You definitely don’t have two dogs in you, Maurice says.” And they speculate about the afterlife:
I’m not seeing a meadow full of flowers…. Not seeing a moonful bay neither. With all your old birds there, and they lined up, waiting on you, one after the other, in the peach of their youths. Their rosy cheeks and their glad little eyes. I’m not seeing that by any means. But what I am imagining, Maurice, is a kind of…quiet. You know? Just a kind of…silence.
Lovely, Maurice Hearne says. Restful.
When you think what we put up with in our lives? Noise-wise?
It’s a cacophony, Mr. Redmond.
Even when they commiserate about Dilly’s difficult adolescence, their complaints summon up images of death and near death:
From when she was about thirteen or fourteen? Maurice says. It was all going a bit amateur dramatics with Dilly. Scarification. Voices in the night. Running away to the Ummera Wood and burying herself alive. Not calling her mother nor me. Not so much as a text message. We’re going up the walls. Her ladyship is buried to the shoulders in the fucken dirt.
And all of it only increases their longing for the blissful years of Dilly’s childhood: “A gorgeous little one. Watch a bit of telly with you. Laughing her head off. The little chuckles? I can hear them in my chest still.”
All three of Barry’s novels are formally daring and inventive. The narratives take sudden turns that can throw the reader off balance. For the first two hundred pages of Beatlebone, we’re privy to the dreams and despairs of John Lennon as he searches for the island on which he can really let go and scream, practicing what he’s learned in Primal Scream Therapy, “a technique for getting at buried pain and childhood trauma.” We follow his odyssey through an abandoned hotel, in and out of the clutches of an abusive cult, on boats and beaches and into a cave where he experiences an epiphany laced with existential terror. Then there’s a chapter break, and we’re in Manhattan, outside the Dakota, with a writer who seems to be Kevin Barry, and who is trying to figure out how to write a novel about Lennon. His research leads him to recreate the travels of his hero, a journey that involves some harrowing moments in the cave, a troubling vision on the shore, and a succession of meditations on ghosts, sentimentality, and the occult that provide some of the book’s most profound and riveting moments. Then everything changes again, and we’re in a London studio in which Lennon and a long-suffering recording engineer are trying to produce a fictive album that, we come to realize, will sound more like a sustained, maddened incantation than a series of songs.
The dislocations in Night Boat to Tangier aren’t nearly so radical, but it’s startling when the narrative slips seamlessly into Dilly’s point of view and, more briefly, into Cynthia’s. Dilly has Maurice and Charlie’s talent for crime, but it’s tempered by her mother’s savvy intelligence. If Maurice and Charlie are out of step with the times, Dilly is wholly in tune with the moment. Unlike them, she speaks Spanish, and she’s well aware that the money is no longer in drug trafficking but in smuggling human beings. En route to Tangier, she has thirty-two fake Spanish passports sewn into the lining of her suitcase.
Maurice and Charlie are no match for her, and yet she fears that they’re capable of dragging her down in their heavy undertow. Like the two men, she’s attuned to the power of language. But even as we remember Cynthia’s sage warning—“the fear of turning into our parents…is what turns us into our fucking parents”—we feel, or hope, that Dilly’s wariness of the florid discourse so natural to Maurice and Charlie may save her from winding up like them:
Something else that she had learned—you need to watch yourself at every minute of the day. If you don’t watch yourself, the badness might slide in, or the evil. Watch your words most of all. Watch for the glamorous sentence that appears from nowhere—it might have plans for you. Watch out for the clauses that are elegantly strung, for the string of words bejewelled. Watch out for ripe language—it means your words may be about to go off.
In one of Barry’s strongest short stories, “Fjord of Killary,” yet another of his romantics, a blocked poet, buys a decrepit hotel complete with a tavern frequented by locals who hate him. The inn is nearly washed away in a flood, but at the last moment the waters recede. It seems like a metaphor for the arc of so much of Barry’s fiction: he’s unwilling to let his characters drown, but he doesn’t feel compelled to save them from the trouble in which they’ve mired themselves.
At the end of Night Boat to Tangier, Maurice and Charlie leave the terminal and venture out into rainy Algeciras:
Maurice Hearne steps out from the held tension of himself, he loosens up, he sticks his head out beneath the jut and gazes blankly to the night sky, there above the port and stacks, and yes, it is clearing, and the stars are the same old stars, and he turns a look to his pal that’s halfways hopeful—
“I think it’s stopping,” he says.
We want the rain to stop falling on Maurice and Charlie. We want them to survive with some modicum of hope. And it’s strange, really, because they are, as they themselves admit, “truly dreadful fucken men.” We’ve seen them inflict casual violence on the hapless Ben; we’ve heard about the beatings and knifings and murders they’ve committed. Cynthia recalls watching Maurice “thump the head off some young fella on Washington Street,” an attack provoked because someone might have said something about his shoes. So why are we so charmed by these dreadful men, and why are we glad to spend so many pages in their company?
In the afterword to City of Bohane, and in several interviews, Barry explains that he was heavily influenced by The Wire, the brilliant HBO series set in the inner city, schools, newsrooms, and docks of Baltimore. In “Wifey Redux,” arguably the funniest story in his collection Dark Lies the Island, a happily married woman with “a Pinot Grigio habit that would knock a fucking horse” is a passionate fan of the series: “She was freezeframing bits of The Wire that featured the gay killer Omar because she had a thing for him. She had lately been waking in the night and crying out his name.”
Those of us who have had “a thing” for the assassin Omar Little may feel one step closer to understanding why we’ve developed a similar thing for Charlie and Maurice. It’s why we so happily spent five seasons watching The Wire’s crime boss Stringer Bell, why we mourned the murder of D’Angelo Barksdale, even though he’d been sent to jail for a double homicide. It’s why I’ve missed Maurice and Charlie ever since I finished Barry’s novel.
Like The Wire, Night Boat to Tangier—and much of Barry’s work—inspires us to rethink our ideas of character, of compassion and forgiveness. Without romanticizing crime, they humanize the criminal. Enabling us to “get the speech,” to see beneath the surface and into the souls of the losers, the lovelorn, the kind of guys we’d cross the ferry terminal to avoid—surely that’s one of the great things that a work of art can do.