No one writes like Kevin Barry. If Bukowski had been born fifty years later, in the tumbledown backalleys of County Kerry or Sligo instead of the Port of San Pedro, maybe. All the daring, all the guile. Make it all up as if tossed out as you go, say it all in the half-made-up language of the drug dens of Cork and midnights in the Port of Algeciras, fashion within it the loves and lives and heartbreaks of losers you’re pulling for far more than they deserve, and have everyone with any grip on the page in tears by the end.
They stayed a sleepless night in a guesthouse in Crouch End. The night aged slowly as a decade. Maurice was as old now as he’d ever been, but yes, there was Dilly, who was silent and gorgeous and yes, definitely, he was in love with her. It was time to go back to Ireland."
""Night Boat to Tangier", Barry’s latest novel after the award-winning City of Bohane and Beatlebone, is about two old men and one woman, their shared backstory unspooling in alternating chapters from the mouth of an omniscient narrator who talks like they do. Indeed, the likeness among them all is strengthened by Barry’s eschewing quotation marks throughout. Here, Maurice and Cynthia are being tailed by rival drug-runners"
They’re out of the van, Maurice!
And two big fucking Spanish heads on them.
Shoulders the breadth of Madrid.
They leaned back against the van and smoked fervently—they looked down towards the house with calm.
Is the third line something Cynthia has said to Maurice, or is it the voice of the novel in Barry’s third-person-close narration? Either way—indeed the very ambiguity in it—is brilliant. We couldn’t be any closer to the action, more alive in the world they inhabit. You see their world as they see it, want and fear everything in it as they do, feel the slings and arrows of those around them—Maurice’s partner-in-crime, Charlie, and Maurice and Cynthia’s spawn, Dilly—as they do.
"The story opens with Maurice and Charlie watching for Dilly in the Port of Algeciras. We take her for a homeless itinerant crossing borders with hordes of others like her—a perroflauta, a “crusty” as one of the women puts it—after everything that has happened to them all. The chapters alternate between their watching for her in the port while retracing the sorry tales of their lives, and the twenty years or so that preceded this night and brought them all here."
The backstory of Maurice and Cynthia is one of successful drug-running, shared heroin addictions, and a cursed attempt to get clean by building a crescent of homes on a charming knoll in the west of Ireland. Bad money begets bad luck, when Maurice learns why the price of the land was so reasonable, and has finally told Cynthia the news.
The men won’t build on a site we’ve paid four hundred and eighty-five thousand pounds for because they think there’s a fairy fort up there. And you felt this was beyond remark?
Fairy fort is stretching it, he said. It’s just these superstitions you get locally. About places. It’s the moundy bit on the far side. Apparently it has all the characteristics of a fairy fort.
And since when the fuck, Maurice, would you know the characteristics of a fairy fort?
There’s such a thing as the fucken internet, he said.
There follows, for Maurice, a time of wandering in the desert after leaving Cynthia and little Dilly. Beautiful scenes made of the maladies that happen to all of us, told with an Irish knack for finding the lyrical in everyday lives that can buckle your knees.
Eventually, the backstory chapters catch up to the present, we learn why two old men are searching for a young woman in the Port of Algeciras, what they’ve all lost along the way and why she’s not making it easy for them. I’ll say no more.
Kevin Barry is an Irish novelist like no other, and an International treasure. With his City of Bohane and Beatlebone, two short story collections and now Night Boat to Tangier, he takes his place among the top Irish and British literary fiction writers of our time—Colm Toibin, John Banville, Anne Enright, Edna O’Brien, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and now Kevin Barry.
You’ll read more about all these writers, and their American counterparts—Richard Ford, Claire Messud, Richard Russo and James Salter—in these pages. More, too, about Jenny Erpenbeck and Nick Hornby, Patrick Modiano and Amor Towles, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, Brian Morton and Tom Barbash and many more.
I didn’t start with a short story. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a short story that didn’t come out of a longer work. MFA folks will recognize in this that I never learned to write fiction in school. I learned it reading fiction, and writing the true story first. To get it out of the way, one might say now, though I surely didn’t know it then. All that taught me how to carry a pocket moleskin, and refine one morning’s work while thinking about the next’s.
One day, while we were vacationing in Connecticut, our son wanted to play golf. He went online and found a municipal course among all the country club listings, called and learned he’d get on soon enough if he just showed up and waited for a three-some. He jotted down the name and address. But this was before map-apps, and in time we were in the vicinity but lost as could be. I pulled into the fifth or sixth course we passed that wasn’t the one we were looking for—another country club it was—just to ask directions. I slowed to a stop in the parking lot, where a man was reaching into his trunk for his clubs.
I’m not sure he rolled his eyes at me when he saw us, but he knew we were lost. And he gave off a distinct I’m-better-than-you-in-so-many-ways vibe. He instantly reminded me of all the lawyers I’d worked with and against over the years, and didn’t like. Oh, there were plenty I did like, whether partners or opponents, but there were far too many who thought far more of themselves than they deserved. This fellow kind of rolled his eyes, watched the shotgun-side window roll down, and did what he could to get us on our way without catching something.
That character—a very “flat” character as writing teachers would say—became Chase Pendleton, one of the two protagonists in my first novel, Strays. He had the look, and the money and other circumstances to support the unsavory hidden life I just knew was behind it all. And I wanted to find out why. I scribbled and jotted in my moleskin until morning, and started writing about him, what I thought was behind this little scene that was or might be of interest.
A few days later, on the way to the airport, a stewardess boarded the bus and came down the aisle. It was her. Not the wife but the paramour who populated Chase’s hidden life. She was pretty, and had the kind of job that would have her around now and then but not always. And she had the look of someone who could play a role in that sort of life, at least while looking for another. She became the second of the three characters I thought the story would be about. In the end—or I should say in short order—she had played her role by the end of the first chapter, and the story would unspool from there over the course of the next year or so until the first draft was finished.
My second novel, Atlantic View, didn’t start with a character, but with a house. It was one of several one-hundred-year-old Victorians on the street above the café where I was writing in the days after Strays was finished. And it had a dormer window that looked out on the sea. Somebody would be writing up there, it seemed to me. About something he’d found up there after the family that had lived there—his family—were all gone.
To Be Continued
With her Booker Prize winning The Gathering and later The Green Road, Anne Enright has long since established her position among the best of contemporary Irish writers. Her latest novel begins with a party scene in the house the theater career built or bought, an elegant old place on Dublin’s Dartmouth Square. Norah takes us through a party there, populated by lecherous characters some of whom are her mother’s theater friends, acting out now that Norah’s turned twenty-one. All in good fun, of course, sort of.
From there Norah takes us through her mother’s successes and failures and ultimate downfall, puzzled by much of it, all the while looking back on her own life and its many twists and turns. The chapters on “The Troubles” and the night the crowd burned down the British Embassy put me in mind of the Watts Riots of my own youth in Los Angeles—mayhem so close, one really did wonder how far the surging crowd and violence might reach. O’Dell is rumored to have been active in the IRA, and takes her lumps in the press for that and more. All this is told in non-linear fashion; not chronologically, but as one’s memory works—snippets from adulthood preceding tales of her grandparents’ house—all the while looking for causes or reasons for Katherine’s choices and misbehaviors, and Nora’s own before she met the “you” she’s addressing now and then.
Eventually it becomes clear that her mother’s life held more secrets than even Norah knew. The result is an astonishing portrait of how one famous life hid secrets and atrocities not all of Katherine’s own doing.
Actress is something of a more difficult read, in places, than some of Enright’s others. But the ending is not to be missed, or given away in any review.
I’m not one for experimental form in fiction, but this one won me over early on. It’s a novel of ideas—political ideas, mainly—laced with sympathetic insights into the plight of African refugees in today’s Berlin
center of the novel is Richard, a classics professor whose retirement seems to have been forced in some way. One day he happens by Alexanderplatz, the large public square in East Berlin, and encounters the unsettling sight of dark-skinned immigrants encamped. After observing them over the course of several days, he passes again and they are gone. He becomes interested in their plight in a way he might not have a few years earlier, for he’s the widower of an imperfect marriage, all of which has left a hole in him. When he learns the refugees have been moved to a vacant, now-repurposed government building, he seeks them out, and begins eventually to talk to them, and even interview a few.
He meets one after another in the cramped, sparsely furnished quarters the government provides. A boy who looks like Apollo says he is a Tuareg from Niger, and he answers Richard’s questions in a string of European languages. Awad is a man born in Ghana who’s come here from Libya; Richard thinks of him as Tristan when he learns his mother died giving birth to him.
Rashid, who was born into a sprawling, well-to-do Muslim family in Nigeria, tells of a string of catastrophies that follow being run out of one place after another, losing family members every step of the way. Horrific tales take him through Libya, where he is forced onto a boat with his two children; they become marooned with hundreds of others, and he is one of the relative few saved after days without power or water, most of whom die when it capsizes with the relief effort. “Paradise is beneath your mother’s feet,” Rashid says at the end of it all. Richard takes to wandering through his house in the middle of the night, affected by all he is hearing from “the thunderbolt-hurler.” On another visit, after learning Rashid made his living as a metalworker somewhere along his way, Richard asks Rashid to draw a picture of the best work he’d ever done. Rashid obliges with both relish and ennui. “If you could see me doing my work, you would see a completely other Rashid,” he says. “For me working is as natural as breathing.” In and around Alexanderplatz, he may die of asphyxiation, for the refugees have no work. Indeed, they are not allowed to work.
Before you know it—before even he knows it—Richard has become an activist in their cause. He pays for doctor visits for those who’ve taken ill, whose papers are unsurprisingly not in order given all the rules and limitations and the niggardly approach of the white German state. He helps buy a small property in a village in Ghana, for one who cares more about the fate of his mother and family than his own. The amounts at issue are not insignificant but doable, and the transaction is accomplished by a Ghanaian exchange that looks perilous by the standards of our escrow system, a high-wire act seemingly based entirely on trust. The waiting is similar, but the paperwork is different—there isn’t any—and the whole thing is over in hours rather than months.
Richard researches immigration law and learns the refugees are not allowed to work. They are not allowed to come back when they leave, and are allowed to stay only if they jump through hoops laid out in arcane and impenetrable administrative titles, all designed to appear to be welcoming while casting a net that will frustrate their aims. Germany, like so many western countries, only appears to give a damn if we’re talking about the law as applied to immigrants. They all dearly want to work—even when on stipend they’d rather work—but legal and bureaucratic obstacles to anyone employing them are baked into the system.
The book closes as it opened, with a party at Richard’s house. But instead of his old friends from academia and such, the refugees are the only ones in attendance. While Richard cooks, the refugees find tools in the backyard shed and clean up the garden and the grounds, chatting back and forth in good cheer as they work.
Another reviewer found Richard not fully realized—“flat” one might say—as a character. Perhaps this comes with the territory in such a political novel. But anyone untouched by the plight of these refugees, and the grace with which Richard reaches out to them—as any of us could, if only we tried—would be a puzzle to me.