Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
Book Review by Keith Rosson
Kevin Barry has always written about men steeped in violence, men who exist on the precipice of madness. It’s a preoccupation of his, and of his characters. His new novel is no different in that regard.
Night Boat to Tangier opens with two men, Maurice Hearn and Charlie Redmond, as they sit waiting at the Spanish port of Algeciras. The two are aging, dapper, exuding a kind of world-weary, jolly menace. Irishmen, drug traffickers, likely killers, they’re waiting for the arrival of Maurice’s estranged daughter Dill, who he hasn’t seen in three years. She’ll either be, according to Maurice’s sketchy, half-formed sources, arriving on a boat from or heading to Tangier. Night Boat To Tangier, like other of Barry’s works, veers throughout history – scenes of Maurice and Charlie reminiscing in the port run scattershot alongside scenes from their respective pasts, illustrating the dark, roundabout way they came to be there.
While the novel focuses mostly on Maurice and his familial life and great missteps (his relationship with his wife is mercurial, paranoid, and drug-addled, as is his relationship with his daughter, his mistress, and a wildly vacillating narcotics empire), the book takes occasional side sojourns into the lives of violent Charlie, Dill, Maurice’s wife Cynthia, and his mistress Karima. It’s all written with that brilliant, pneumatic, incendiary style that only Barry seems capable of. Of their first large-scale drug deal, Barry writes:
“We play it like it’s the nine hundredth and eighty-ninth time we’ve done this, Maurice said, and not the first.
Charlie Redmond did not need telling. The thing about Charlie was that you took him into a room and they knew. One look and they fucking knew. A single glance into the soulful eyes of Mr. Charles Redmond, and they knew that this could go in any direction.”
All throughout the book, Barry takes time to expound on notions of violence and love, and what happens when essentially weak men conflate the two. Betrayals in business and romance and friendship are rife throughout the book – in this way, Barry’s written perhaps his most classically noir-ish novel since City of Bohane – as are the themes of exile and isolation, that some men seem inherently incapable of understanding that they bring their own luck with them.
As Maurice and Cynthia haphazardly attempt to raise young Dill and funnel all of their drug funds into real estate – the construction of an apartment complex on a windblown bluff next to what they’ve come to fear is a haunted Irish rath, or “fairy fort” – the two fall deeper into paranoia and ruination:
“Now they became obsessed with the idea that they had fallen into bad luck. They took heroin against the idea. The measured quantities that had distinguished their previous habits as models of noble restraint went out the fucking window. Now they were horsing into it. And the aura of bad luck was at once everywhere. It was around them like a nervous village. The stone hills spoke out the rumour of the bad luck. The wind blew the rumour in swirls about their feet. Bad luck, bad luck—the idea entertained itself, fattened, came to fruition. They took cocaine in breakneck quantities against the idea of the bad luck. They were hammering into the Powers, the John Jameson, it was breakfast from the bottle and elevenses off the mirror. The child would well as be raised by the cats that sat lazily in what April sun troubled itself to come across the rooftops of Berehaven. The build was a disaster from the get-go. A young fella from Sneem, as broad as he was long, broke his leg on the first morning of construction. Word of the accident was around the fishwives of Berehaven like a fast fucking fire. Up on the wind-blown site, there was a sense that morning of fatalism, unhingedness, morbid introspection. Day two some fucking eejit with a kango hammer nearly took the marriage prospects off himself. Day five a thirty-two-year-old man from Glengarriff had a mini-stroke while he was mixing bags of sand and gravel. The builder Murphy was by now having trouble keeping his numbers up, and he was depressed and drinking heavily the length of the slow evenings at the West End Bar.”
It’s on the shorter end, this book, but given Barry’s boundless skill, he still encapsulates these men and women and their follies and ruinous grandiosities perfectly well. Embattled, bitter, privy to moments both weak and brave, Barry runs the gamut here, and runs his characters into the ground. It’s a crime novel, yeah, but at its core – like all good fiction – it’s an exploration of people, of the complications of the human heart.
Does Maurice find Dill at that seedy Spanish port? Do these two woefully damaged, dangerous men find any sort of redemption at the end of the book? I won’t tip my hand towards either in this review, but I will say that the journey itself is the reward here. Barry writes like no one else, and Night Boat to Tangier ranks as one of his strongest outings to date. A compact and powerful exploration of love, greed, violence, and the great and endless damage we’re willing to bring upon ourselves and those we love in the search of some kind of completeness, proof that we’re at our most ruinous when we think we deserve something.