Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry, Canongate, 214 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1782116172
At some point in most lives, it seems, people pivot from a position of looking towards the future to thinking only of the past. Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, the main voices of Night Boat to Tangier, have reached this stage earlier than most. They are only in their early fifties, but they are not well men, either mentally or physically. For many years now both of them have been importing drugs into Ireland and their lives have become as distorted as their trade determines. When we join them they are waiting in the Spanish port of Algeciras, sitting on a bench with an old Adidas bag at their feet filled with flyers which show a picture of Dilly Hearne, presumed daughter of Maurice, whom he has not seen for three years. “Photo’s a bit old now, but she’d still have the same kind of gaatch on her, I’d say.”
While they wait, in the hope that she will arrive from, or on her way to, Tangier, they reminisce about their shared past in a stylised, expletive-filled Hiberno-English. The language used to disentangle their characters and circumstances is wildly expressive and almost always contains observations and inflections that are unexpected and perfectly placed.
They are in their low fifties. The years are rolling out like tide now. There is old weather on their faces, on the hard lines of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths.
But there is a marked contrast between the precision of intention in this use of language and the way the two men can suddenly become – in ways implied rather than stated – a menace to those around them. Temperate exchanges can quickly give way to severe actions, as when they accost a young English crusty called Ben who fits their idea of the type of person who might know Dilly.
Maurice leans in, slams him to the stool, bites his shoulder. Charlie muffles the cry with the tips of his fingers placed firmly to Benny’s mouth.
Barry’s highly original, arresting style of description continues when the narrative begins to deal with the episodes that brought the two men to the point we find them at in 2018, the present time of the novel. When arranging their first ever drugs shipment, Maurice meets a woman called Karima and casually notices her “take in huge, derisive gulps of her cigarette smoke, as if it couldn’t possibly feed the burning want of her Saharan lungs”. A more prosaic incident follows ‑ a rare indication of how grim this business really is – when she shows him a man tied up in an empty apartment and says, in her offhand way: “This is also how it goes sometimes.”
That two men are waiting for someone to turn up might bring Beckett to mind and there’s an explicit nod to Watt at one point when Charlie makes a reference to “Their father’s fathers’ fathers”. But even so, there’s little of Beckett here and far more of Pinter in the ever-present tension between what is being said and what is meant: high-flown language used for low-down purposes.
There is, however, some risk in the seductive nature of Barry’s language. By immersing his two main protagonists in finely burnished language he bathes much of their backstory in sepia tones and affords them a dignity and grandeur they scarcely deserve. It becomes impossible not to see them as two thoughtful, considerate individuals and forget the reality of their sordid lives. This is despite the details we learn of their own suffering and anguish. Maurice has a long-term relationship with a woman called Cynthia but even the happiest of their times together are lived with the anxious knowledge that there are people in the world as unpleasant as Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond. Maurice begins to use the heroin they sell to others and begins a parallel stint as a developer in a rural part of West Cork. Nothing goes well, but even so, there is a romanticism to the suffering. At one time they live in Mayo and, “for a while they fell into the quietude of the place. Always, as the years passed, they would name it as the best time in their lives. When we had mountain and when we had water.” Later, looking back on this same time he decides that “The first six months on heroin with Cynthia were the most beautiful days of all time. Love and opiates – this is unimprovable in the human sphere.”
There is little ever said about those whose money is keeping them alive and allowing them the options of the wealthy. Their misery-making seems to be without victims and the world we experience through their lives is entirely solipsistic. The narrow scope of their activities means that, despite their visits to many parts of Ireland, Spain and England they never appear to engage with the world as it exists beyond their immediate concerns. This in turns leads them to look back on their own wretched times with a nostalgia that can float towards the edges of self-serving sentimentality, as when Maurice tells Benny about Charlie’s fondness for his daughter.
Charlie Redmond? A gentleman. A philosopher . . . I tell you now, since she was no bigger than a little trout? Dilly Hearne has been that man’s darling. Oh, he doted on her. He was around our place four nights of the week, five, bringing her comic books, DVDs, sneaking her in sweets, and if he didn’t show up, of an evening, she’d be at the window, upstairs, looking out, where’s my Unkie Charlie? And it’s three years now since we seen Dilly, and you can imagine what it’s like for me, the girls father, I’ve been in hell. But Charlie Redmond? He’s as bad again. No peace, no solace, not till his Dilly’s got back to him.
Nurturing and responsible they are not. These are restless men, forever aware of the need to move on, to flee. But their inability to ever truly escape – because wherever they go they’re always there – becomes their biggest burden. Their lives become entwined to an ever greater degree and eventually Maurice feels the need to escape to Spain and to re-establish his relationship with Karima, the drug haul agent who, we learn ‑ in what is surely be the most odious detail of the book ‑ fries him sparrows for breakfast. Even so, the writing has a languid radiance, befitting the climate of Malaga. When Maurice rests on a seabreak we’re told that
He lay a long while on the boulder, until the heat of the sun diminished and the cool of evening came down again like a lowered veil, a kindness.
They scarcely deserve such descriptions, these callous people. It’s like giving a toilet brush a teak handle. Yet it is those remarkable passages of vivid and detailed writing that make this book worth reading. They appear with regularity and are always a delight, a reason to stop, to reread and savour the words in one’s mouth. Such an instance is the description of the farmer we meet briefly in “The Bughouse”, a hospital for the mentally unwell, “Some misfortune netted from the hills of the country, Maurice guessed, who listened to the rain too insistently, maybe, until he took his instructions from the voices within it.” We might usefully have lingered with this man and listened in to the rain’s suggestions. It would have lent a dimension of humanity otherwise absent from the novel.
But instead, by the end of Night Boat to Tangier, little enough has happened. Whatever the fluctuations of their lives, Hearne and Redmond are from another time and their files have not been updated. So it is that when Dilly passes them by and looks straight at their misshapen faces, they can’t see her. She too has their need to keep moving, to always be about to go somewhere else, albeit for different reasons. But she has changed her appearance in ways that do not equate with the photo on the flyers in the old Adidas bag. All three are in the same space for a little while, but her time is not their time. Waiting for Dilly is, most likely, just an excuse for Maurice and Charlie to be together and talk about the old days. They want to remember, but they need to forget.
Declan O’Driscoll has written for The Irish Times, Music & Literature and several other publications.