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.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .