When Kevin Barry appeared at the Toronto International Festival of Authors in 2013 (back when it was still known as IFOA), he outlined his idea of the traditions that exist within Irish literature. Basically, Barry argued, there are two opposite poles running through the nation’s writing in the early 21st century. At one pole stands James Joyce: Catholic, maximalist, ornate, who puts everything into his books. At the other pole is Samuel Beckett: Protestant, minimalist, austere, who takes everything out. Barry expressed a desire to chart a course between these two poles.
Anyone familiar with Barry’s writing can attest to the fact that he has largely succeeded in his goal, though reading his third and latest novel, the Booker longlisted Night Boat to Tangier, underlines the notion that there is a third Irish writer with whom Barry might reasonably be compared: Flann O’Brien.
O’Brien, whose real name was Brian O’Nolan, is best known for his 1939 novel At-Swim-Two-Birds, a book that was notably praised by Joyce toward the end of his life. The novel is metafictional and stylistically anarchic, displaying a surface disorder that overlays a deep knowledge and understanding of Irish literature and culture. It is also – and here is where the Venn diagram most closely overlaps with Barry – shot through with local argot and dialect that is lively, satirical, and darkly funny.
Barry himself, in the foreword to Anthony Cronin’s biography No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien, references O’Brien’s “savage and inky-black humour, and a default stance of blithe affront to the world,” both of which might be ascribed to Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, the two aging drug runners at the heart of Barry’s new novel. Over the course of a single night waiting in the seedy Spanish port of Algeciras for the anticipated return of Dilly, Maurice’s estranged daughter, the two men will bicker and reminisce, threaten fellow travellers, drink quite a lot, and engage in the kind of hard-boiled badinage that would have put a wide smile on the faces of Barry’s literary forefathers.
Though Night Boat to Tangier does not precisely operate in a metafictional mode, the opening line evokes a kind of comment on the nature of storytelling: “Would you say there’s any end in sight, Charlie?” The question will be repeated at the novel’s close: “Is there any end in sight, Maurice?” There is no definitive response to be had – the final line of the novel reads, “I think it’s stopping, he says” – and the repetition and contingency evokes Beckett, as does the plain, unadorned language. But the notion of beginning and ending, of how a story is framed and what details are included or elided, owes as much to O’Brien.
So too do the overlapping incidents and reminiscences that make up the narrative, which shuttles from the present to the past as Maurice and Charlie recall significant moments from their earlier lives. We hear of drug deals and sexual dalliances in cities from Barcelona to London to Cork. We hear about the night Maurice stabbed Charlie in the knee over a perceived betrayal (an event that occurs at the somewhat obviously named Judas Iscariot all-night drinking club). We hear of the night Maurice, overwhelmed by depression, almost drowns himself and Dilly in the frigid waters off Ireland’s Beara Peninsula. And we accompany Maurice and Charlie to the Cork city “bughouse” where they attempt to detox from heroin.
Night Boat to Tangier is a bleak novel about unsavoury men, but its dominant mode is one of melancholy and mourning for what is lost: love, youth, family. Maurice and Charlie’s shared past extends its fingers into their present and refuses to relinquish its grip: “The past will not relent,” Maurice muses.
The past, for the two men, means Dilly, and it also means Ireland, which is a source of much present anguish and heartache. “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.” Throughout the novel, Ireland is described in language that evokes claustrophobia and anxiety. In Cork, the “smoke that rose from the river in the late-winter morning was dense and ominous.” In the “thick dark of the Ummera Wood” the night “descended like a great sombre bird roosting.” And in October, “[t]he month of slant beauty,” “[k]nives of melancholy flung in slivers from the sea.” Here, the image of nature is explicitly connected to Maurice and his act of violence toward his friend at the Judas Iscariot.
None of this should suggest for a moment that Night Boat to Tangier is not an entertaining read; on the contrary, the liveliness of Barry’s language, his structural ingenuity, and his ability to tell a cracking yarn render the novel sprightly and brisk, a somewhat surprising counterpoint to the rather dour material. Nor is it possible not to feel a certain pang of empathy for these two men, notwithstanding their unsavoury histories and gruff exteriors. Over the course of the novel, Barry excavates a deep well of loneliness and yearning in both Maurice and Charlie, which mirrors the rugged Irish landscape and bitter, windy weather, and which each man tries to fill with various combinations of sex, drugs, and alcohol.
But what burns through in both cases is their shared love for Dilly, who is not exactly a stand-in for Beckett’s Godot here – she does make an appearance at the Spanish port, though not in the way one might expect – and their mutual dismay at the fact of growing old. “Hate is not the answer to love,” Maurice reflects in the bar at Algeciras, “death is its answer.” It is a sombre truth in a thoughtful and well-crafted novel.