“Night Boat to Tangier” By: Kevin Barry

Jan 29, 2020

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“Night Boat to Tangier”

Author: Kevin Barry

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 255

Price: $25.95 (Cloth)

The population of Ireland is 4.8 million. Alabama is also 4.8 million.

Another factor in common: these two relatively small places have given the world a wildly disproportionate number of writers.

In the early twentieth century the most influential poet in the world was William Butler Yeats, James Joyce was the wellspring of modernist fiction and Sean O’Casey arguably the leading dramatist in the west.

In the southern U.S., Faulkner became the most important novelist, the Fugitive and Agrarian poets ruled the roost for a while and Tennessee Williams was arguably the most successful playwright of his time. These writers remain household names in America.

And here in the state of Alabama, we have produced a prodigious number of fine writers, among them William March, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and Winston Groom, to name just a few of those inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.

In both countries the literary tradition remained strong. The Southern renaissance came down through Welty, O’Connor, Styron, and Robert Penn Warren to include, but certainly not end with, Barry Hannah.

The Irish poets and novelists are not as well known here as they should be but suffice to say the mature Colm Toibin, with his magisterial novel about Henry James, “The Master,” and young Kevin Barry maintain the high standards of the Irish literary renaissance and both are at the top of their game.

Where Toibin’s prose is nearly stately, with subject matter that includes Irish migration to America, the life of the Virgin Mary and a rewriting of the House of Atreus story, Kevin Barry is the creator of linguistic fireworks. His recently published “Beatlebone” fictionalized John Lennon’s sojourn in Ireland, and now he’s released “Night Boat to Tangier,” a spectacular, wildly vulgar, tour-de-force.

The novel opens at the ferry shed in Algecirus, Spain on Oct 23, 2018. Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, two Irish thugs, in their fifties, old pals and adversaries, their lives hopelessly bound together, are watching for incoming or departing ferries to Algiers, hoping to find Maurice’s daughter Dilly.

She had run away, to Spain and to Morocco, joined travelling hippies, free spirits, lived in a cave and a slum, scratched out a living selling fake African curios to tourists, and may have made off with some of Maurice and Charlie’s money.

During their vigil, they talk, reminisce about their past and face a dreary future. We learn their stories, going back to childhood.

Charlie and Maurice are professional criminals, drug dealers, smugglers, both vicious and sad. Both have mental troubles, have been hospitalized. Over the years they have made a fortune, but, tragically terrible businessmen, squandered and lost it all. Maurice had built a terrace of 9 houses outside of Cork on a hill so wind-blasted, no one would buy. He bought “14 apartments in Budapest and sold them at a tremendous loss.” He and Charlie once LOST “a tonne and a half of Moroccan hashish,” never found.

They were bosom buddies but, over a woman, Maurice’s wife, came to violence in a scene unmatched for menace and tension, in the Judas Iscariot, an illicit All-Night Drinking Club in Cork City.

“Charlie Redmond was drinking alone but for his demons….”

Maurice enters with “a face to match the night….”

They drink, remain civil, but all present watch, knowing eruption is near: Steve Bromell the cocaine peddler, Jimmy Earls, a brothel-keeper, “two ladies of love, a ponce …a prince among bouncers.”

“The room kept its breath. It held on a moment of violent possibility.”

Finally, there is terrible damage done, in a moment one might see in a Quentin Tarrantino film.

Besides superb scene building, Barry’s greatest gifts are his dialogue, which can hardly be quoted at all because of the organic, blazing obscenity, and the way he cracks language open, then hammers, bends and twists, forcing the words to reveal new meanings in the way readers of Southern literature became familiar with in Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” and Barry Hannah’s “Airships.”

In the terminal, “a blind man roils in night sweat and clicks his teeth to sell lottery tickets like a fat rattling serpent.”

Charlie “rises up from the bench in a bundle of sighs…His aura is of brassy menace.”

Maurice’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.”

“Night Boat” is Barry’s fifth book. He’s a wonder. Read him if you dare.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.