Echoes of Joyce in a Lyrical Novel about Seedy Irishmen
The novels of Irish writer Kevin Barry always have something going on with language. Whether he concerns himself with a dystopian Ireland in 2053 (City of Bohane, 2011) or John Lennon’s immersion into scream therapy (Beatlebone, 2015), Barry focuses on sentences that do more than merely report plot developments. In this way, his fiction comes to serve as a means of achieving a higher dignity for his often rough-and-tumble characters, and his home country has rewarded him for these efforts with a range of prizes that include the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Goldsmiths Prize, and the International Dublin Literary Award.
Barry’s latest novel, Night Boat to Tangier, centers on two drug dealers in their fifties—Maurice and Charlie—who wait at the port of Algeciras, Spain, for Maurice’s estranged daughter Dilly. For three years, Dilly has lived the life of an angry 20-something in Europe, and Maurice, who hasn’t seen her during this span, has picked up that she’ll be at this port on an October night in 2018, either leaving for or coming from Tangier. That’s enough to encourage the regret-filled father and his best mate to wait it out at the port, eyes peeled. Despite the rough-and-tumble milieu and several chapters focused on Maurice’s dealing, using, and cheating past, Barry’s lyrical approach dispels any sense his tale will focus strictly on the underbelly:
Charlie Redmond? The face somehow has an antique look, like a court player’s, medieval, a man who’d strum a lute for you. In some meadowsweet lair.
Barry’s sensibility takes the Irish idiom and pulls it toward something more classically beautiful. The mixing of the elevated and base gives Night Boat to Tangier a literary feel, not unlike what James Joyce and many other writers relied on for the better part of the 20th century. Barry’s ability to depict moments in which Maurice experiences the ineffable separates his work from more rote efforts:
There was a ragged boy with a flute and an old dog on a rope in the square outside, and as the boy blew tunelessly on the flute and sang some words to his old sick dog, as the broken notes rose up, Maurice came out of his skin, and he could see the scene from above, and the square was taking on the deeper tones of the evening—hushed and velvet tones…
Barry is out to give you not only an intriguing plot with compelling characters but a kind of transcendence. His work implies that we all roll around in the mucky-muck, but maybe we’re divine, too. If you’re making up a story about people, you might as well include both.
In the 21st century, the most common answer to the question “What is literature?” might be “Who cares?” Still, with the stretching of language to describe far more than just the machinations of plot, Barry offers a unique glance into a world where no sin is so egregious as to bar one from grace. He writes, “Hate is not the answer to love; death is its answer.” Sure, we may suffer hard fates, but when someone tells them from the right perspective, they seem more lovely and transcendent than what we think we deserve.
(Doubleday, September 17, 2019)