‘Their Chaotic Mouths’

Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry; drawing by Hope Gangloff

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:


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