Irish Darkness in a Spanish Port

Irish Darkness in a Spanish Port


Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry. Doubleday, New York, 2019. 255 pp.

Reviewed by Richard Corbett

Rick Steves' travel guide to Spain dismisses the port city of Algeciras as "only worth leaving." But in Irish author Kevin Barry's latest novel, Night Boat to Tangier, two best friends and former drug smugglers from the city of Cork spend a day and night in the gloomy ferry terminal at Algeciras, wallowing in the past.

Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are anxious to achieve some form of reconciliation with Dilly, Maurice's 23-year-old daughter, whom they have not seen nor heard from since she left Ireland for Spain three years ago. They have only scant information that she may be arriving or leaving on one of the ferry boats that will be crossing the Strait of Gibraltar between Algeciras and Tangier, Morocco, sometime during October 23, 2018—the day that provides the setting for most of the novel.

Barry conjures up a ferry terminal that has an exceptionally seedy and confusing atmosphere, with an undertone of lawlessness that is prevalent but somehow unstoppable. Police "narco choppers" hover above. Packs of vagrant youth from various nations, identifiable by their dreadlocks, a general shabbiness, and an affinity for travelling with dogs, wait in the crowded terminal to embark on mysterious but probably unwholesome missions on the ferry boats to Tangier. The ferry boat schedule is subject to constant uncertainty due to unexplained "disturbances" in Tangier. Slim hints of human trafficking between the two ports arise suddenly and hang chillingly in the air over the terminal, only to disappear just as quickly as they arrived.

As in his previous novels and short story collections, Barry's use of language is masterfully descriptive and highly engaging. He needs only a sentence or two to catch the essence of a location or an aspect of a character: "The ferry terminal has a haunted air, a sinister feeling. It reeks of tired bodies, and dread." Charlie has "a shabby suit, but dapper shoes with rusted-orange tone, a pair of suede-finish creepers that whisper of brothels, also a handsome green corduroy neck-tie. Also, stomach troubles, bags like graves beneath the eyes, and soul trouble." Maurice is "from a line of madmen centuries deep." His left eye is "smeared and dead, the other oddly bewitched, as though with an excess of life, for balance."

Time passes slowly for Charlie and Maurice as they settle into the wait for Dilly, whom they both dearly love. They are broken-hearted, financially broke, and more physically battered than their ages (early fifties) would otherwise suggest.

At first, their casual banter, laced with Irish wit and humor, dwells on the inconsequential, roguish aspects of their past lives. Their conversations are a "shield against feeling." As the day progresses, intervening chapters interrupt the October 23 timeline and provide more detailed descriptions of the past misadventures of Maurice and Charlie, revealing how much they need to resolve. In their criminal careers, they alternated between making huge profits in international drug deals and running from the law or rival criminal gangs in Ireland and Spain. Maurice and Cynthia (Maurice's now deceased wife) raised Dilly in this exhilarating but chaotic and dangerous milieu, with some assistance but also considerable interference from Charlie.

As they wait in the terminal, drawing upon either charm or menace to probe passersby for clues as to the whereabouts of Dilly, the two old friends gradually confront the haunted memories of their criminal lives. They consider how much their choices to embrace lawlessness, and their otherwise loose grasp on what might constitute moral conduct, have hurt the people that they loved and damaged their friendship.

Maurice and Charlie acknowledge their ghosts and they manage to talk through them, with some hesitation. The author signals early in the novel that they are willing to support each other in resolving past issues. As good friends do, they give each other the benefit of the doubt, even when undeserved. In their discussions of various failed undertakings, each emphasizes the boldness, the humorous flourish, or the good intentions of the other.

Night Boat to Tangier, which was on the Longlist for the 2019 Booker Prize and named one of the 10 Best Books of 2019 by The New York Times Book Review, is a novel of pervasive darkness but also enduring friendship. As October 23 draws to a close, Maurice and Charlie experience a shift from the anxious mission that originally brought them to the terminal. Their willingness to cooperate in confronting their past allows them, even in the midst of the dark terminal, filled with its peculiar uncertainty, to eke out some light and reach a certain clarity as to the lasting value of their friendship.

Barry has extensive experience from his previous works with creating marginalized Irish characters who maneuver their way through dark, ghostly or dystopian scenarios: two short story collections—There Are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies the Island—and two novels—The City of Bohane and Beatlebone. That darkness, and the struggle to deal with it, recur in this well-crafted novel. By the end of the book, despite having become well acquainted with the ruthless and violent histories of Maurice and Charlie, the reader is likely to hope their struggle is successful and that these two faded criminals arrive at some good result. After all, in this dismal Spanish port that is "only worth leaving," all Maurice and Charlie want to do is find the person that they love.