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12 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 3:09pm

No country for old men: Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier

By Leo Robson

Kevin Barry, the brilliant Irish writer – winner of the IMPAC Award for City of Bohane and the Goldsmiths Prize for Beatlebone – is fascinated, at times to the exclusion of anything else, with the attributes or properties of place. In his story “Wistful England,” from the collection Dark Lies the Island, the narrator says that Leytonstone seems like somewhere that “a dark turn might occur”. In “Beer Trip to Llandudno”, we’re told that “Birkenhead shimmered across the water. Which wasn’t like Birkenhead.” But despite the mild occultist undertones, the emphasis is always sensory or emotional-anthropocentric, not anthropomorphic. Barry writes about how places seem to people (either “male” or “female”), how they reflect on people (“someone sees you out walking a hill and you’re a fucking eejit”), what they connote for people (“a haven” or “a regular shithole”), and, perhaps most of all, how they form people. “It rained two hundred and eighty-seven days of the year,” we read in “Fjord of Killary”, “and the locals were given to magnificent mood swings.”

But a setting isn’t just a subject for description and a tool of characterisation. It’s also a narrative motor, the site of temporal processes. To introduce a place, at least as Barry does it, is to introduce a lot of other things as well. On the sparsely printed opening page of his third novel – the vivid but wayward Night Boat to Tangier, longlisted for this year’s Booker prize – we learn the surroundings (the “old Spanish port of Algeciras”), the quality of light (“dank”) in which a pair of “sombre” Irishmen are making their familiar “gestures of long-sufferance and woe”, as well as how this environment strikes the narrator: “as awful a place as you could muster”, with “a haunted air, a sinister feeling” redolent of tired bodies and “dread”. We also learn the year (2018), the month (October), the time of day (night), while the mention of “frayed posters – the missing” points towards a plot.

The novel’s odd-numbered chapters are mostly confined to Algeciras, where Charlie and Maurice, the woebegone pair of middle-aged Cork-born gangsters, philosophise and pester strangers and linger by the information booth while looking out for boats that may or may not carry Dilly Hearne, Maurice’s 23-year-old daughter, who “was in Granada maybe” or possibly Morocco. The even-numbered chapters take the story back to 1994, then move forward, sometimes dwelling on a single night, sometimes galloping through whole years, depicting hash deals, heroin addiction, doomed love affairs, and much flying and driving about – furnishing opportunities for Barry’s descriptive and divinatory gifts:

At the port of Malaga the night sky was bled out pale, and the anchor lines and the rigging of the off-season yachts made a nervous chatter in the breeze.

Night Boat to Tangier started as a play, commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, which a number of interviews suggest that Barry submitted. The final, page-bound product, highly scenic in method, is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s plays – Maurice and Charlie are described as “a vaudeville pair” – while recalling the work of another Irish writer, Yeats, who wrote plays but not novels. At times, Barry’s book feels like a mixture of Waiting for Godot, the classic theatrical portrait of stasis and circularity (“You wake up again and it’s Spain again”, “it feels as if a boat may be about to come or go”), and Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”, the poem that begins “That is no country for old men” and expresses the need to use language and travel to ward off bodily decay.

At other times the novel feels like an attempt to forge a new type of mystic miserabilism – a collaboration between Don DeLillo and Philip Larkin, with a desolate landscape providing the stage for long, gnomic conversations about time, as in The Names or Point Omega, but with a higher, “Larkinesque” dose of middle-age youth-envy, “boredom” and “fear” (the “Dockery and Son” pairing), and repeated mention of “high windows”, the haunting title-image of Larkin’s final collection. The recipe of flashback structure, ferries, gangsters, sojourns to Spain, eternal return, abused and mistreated old girlfriends, coming decrepitude, the damage wrought by “the money”, plus a competitive double act – one of them named Charlie – prompts memories of Saul Bellow and Humboldt’s Gift.

A possible advantage of using literary types and tropes is the avoidance of heavy lifting. A dash of Godot might have worked as shorthand, sparing Barry and his reader pages of nonsense blather, but it doesn’t. And though his duo’s dynamic is quickly established – Charlie is cocky, Maurice brooding – Barry seems keen to go on asserting their characteristics. Some 150 pages after we’re told Charlie’s first plane ride “seemed to have raised him a notch higher in self-confidence levels – a notch that he did not need” it is observed “you could pump the River Ganges’ worth of lithium into Charlie Red and there’d be no keeping him down”. As a piece of comic phrasing, this is some way below the Barry average, while its opening words (“Of course”) as good as acknowledge an element of the gratuitous or obvious.

A problem with the book’s construction is that Barry must wring a great deal of interest from a scenario before he can divulge its basic facts. By reeling back and then moving forwards, he is obliged to deal last of all with the most pertinent details. The majority of the past events precede, without directly illuminating, the present moment. And the questions about why Dilly is on the run, or why she might not wish to see Maurice, are anyway required by narrative tension to be answered quite gradually. What matters in the book is necessarily concentrated in its final scenes. In the meantime, given that Charlie and Maurice cannot discuss anything that might constitute a spoiler, we are forced to make do with repartee-plus-atmospherics – Barry-by-numbers.

The novel’s pattern – Charlie and Maurice now/Charlie and Maurice then – is broken on a few occasions in the second half, always to introduce a female point of view – that of Dilly in both the present and the past, and also that of Maurice’s ex-wife and Dilly’s mother, Cynthia. These deviations are welcome and well-timed, but they also constitute an admission of defeat, a recognition on Barry’s part – though one likely to be shared by the reader – that his novel’s scheme is ill-suited to its needs. 

Night Boat to Tangier
Kevin Barry
Canongate, 224pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation