The plot of “Night Boat to Tangier” isn’t what drew me to this book. Two aging Irish gangster wait at a Spanish port for a particular boat to arrive as they mull over the past and seek answers to what happened to one of their lost children named Dilly. Stories about gangsters usually put me off because many seem to revel in a kind of machismo that makes my eyes roll. But I enjoyed Kevin Barry’s previous novel “Beatlebone” so much that this is a writer I’ll eagerly follow no matter what subject he writes about. His writing feels quintessentially Irish. It plays with the meaning of language, draws sharp characterisations and evokes humour through a lot of dialogue, confidently navigates between the absurd and the alarmingly realistic, isn’t afraid of a dirty joke but also approaches life’s big questions with a lot of profundity, veers towards the melancholic and it lingers on the meaning of Irishness itself. Barry’s new novel even plays upon one of the greatest works of Irish literature of all time: Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. It encompasses all this and a lot more while relating the story of Maurice and Charlie’s life as they sit on a bench in this strange liminal space.
I admire how poignantly Barry is able to construct a scene which contains a lot of funny discussion that’s also underpinned by more serious emotions which hang suspended in the background. He states how this works at one point when describing “They look into the distance. They send up their sighs. Their talk is a shield against feeling.” While long-term friends and colleagues Maurice and Charlie have a definite mission being at this Spanish port they also have a lot to discuss which hasn’t been said between them before. They sift through memories and jump between periods of the past to consider how they got to this point, the real value of all their drug smuggling escapades and how they’ve become so estranged from the people who matter the most to them. It’s a process of learning how to live with what they’ve lost rather than trying to forget it: “There comes a time when you just have to live among your ghosts. You keep the conversation going. Elsewise the broad field of the future opens out as nothing but a vast emptiness.”
The prospect of a novel which is largely a conversation that veers between topics like death and masturbation might sound too ponderous to many readers. But there’s a lot of tension in the story as their process of interrogating some people who pass through the port contains flashes of violence or the threat of violence. Many surprising revelations and twists in the plot occur as well while they consider periods of the past and how their relationship is much more complex than it first appears. I also enjoy how this foreign port is a location where they can consider their conflicted feelings of national identity. In some ways Ireland is a place they deeply resent: “Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Its haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.” Yet, it’s also somewhere they’re fiercely attached to both in its people and its landscape contoured by a living past. The daughter Dilly takes the form of a new kind of global citizen still tethered to this vast Irishness which Maurice and Charlie wrestle with, but her radical self-creation is less likely to be crushed by its weight.