Book Review: Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

First of all, Happy New Year to everyone!

(Many people have been waiting expectantly for 2020 to come in anticipation of some change, but I can’t know if we’ll be better off or worse come this time next year.)

But enough about that.    Night Boat to Tangier

I want to talk about Kevin Barry’s brilliant new novel Night Boat to Tangier. A friend said that when he heard it described, it reminded him of Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruge,  and sure there are two Irishmen, hapless criminal types philosophizing on their lives, past and present, and on their long relationships with each other. For me, however, I kept imagining the two protagonists as Estragon and Vladimir, not waiting for Godot but for a long lost daughter on a ferry on which they themselves used to run drugs twenty years earlier.

As Maurice and Charlie sit in the ferry terminal in the port of Algeciras, Spain in October 2018, watching the passengers boarding and disembarking on the night boat to Tangier, their pasts comes burbling up–outlining and shaping their lives for the past twenty five years. It is a past full of lost love, violence, adventure, betrayal and exile.

But it is not necessarily the plot or the characters that is the focus of this book. It is the language itself.

There are comic turns:

Ye’d be sleeping out on the beaches.
Like the lords of nature, Charlie says.
Under the starry skies, Maurice says.
Charlie stands, gently awed and proclaims–
“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue friut.” Whose line was that, Maurice?
I believe it was the Bard, Charlie. Or it may have been Little Stevie Wonder.
A genius. Little Stevie.*

There is darkness:

Of the dozen or so unreliable narrators narrators left in the room at this small hour, all would claim to have seen what happened next–except for Nelson, who considered himself fortunate to be on the other side of the bar–and, in fact, Jimmy Earls would claim even to have heard what happened next…and it was this ripping sound that Jimmy Earls vowed he would carry with him to the deadhouse, and with it the single dull gasp that [was] made.

And then there are passages of pure beauty:

October. The month of slant beauty. Knives of melancholy flung in silvers from the sea. The mountains dreamed of the winter soon to come. The morning sounded hoarsely from the caverns of the bay. The birds were insane again. If she kept walking, toe to heel, one foot after the other, one end of the room to the other, the nausea kept to one side only. The pain was yellowish and intense and abundantly fucking ominous. Cynthia knew by now that she was very sick.

To be sure, neither of the men is of admirable moral fiber. In fact, they are violent, treasonous, disloyal, cowardly, unfaithful drug runners.

And yet, it is the language that makes these two likable. They see the world with a sort of poetic vision–from the gutter to the stars. It is the language that gives them a method for coping with an ever-disappointing, fearful existence.

ARTS / FEATURES Kevin Barry

The novelist Kevin Barry . Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / THE IRISH TIMES

Language has always been Kevin Barry’s forte. His first novel, City of Bohane presented a post-apocalyptic Ireland which is described in a patois of street slang, Irish, and invention. In its originality it might remind one of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Beatlebone-the novel previous to Night Boat to Tangier–takes perhaps the most public of lives–John Lennon’s–and places a western Irish mythology upon it that is dazzlingly beautiful and outlandishly comic.

The words “daring” and “original” and “beautiful” and “brilliant” are often sprinkled around reviews of Barry’s work. They are both appropriate and insufficient. He is much more than that.

*(By the way, it was neither Shakespeare or Stevie Wonder whom Charlie was quoting. It was James Joyce.)

Book Review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (In where John gets wisdom from a seal in the West of Ireland.)

Seal and John

The seal and John talk on the beach at Clew Bay                                                                                                          2016 by jpbohanno

And I’ll tell you another thing.
Go on?
All this …
He swings his head to indicate the world beyond–he’s got a fat stern head like a bouncer.
Fucked, he says.
You don’t mean…
I do, John. It won’t last.
You mean everything?
The works, he says.
But it sounds as wherks.
The wind, the waves, the water, he says.
But it sounded as wawteh.
It’s all in extra time, he says. It’s all of it fucked, son.
Mostly what John cannot get his head around is the Scouse accent.

And so it is 1978 and we are in the West of Ireland in the town of Newport in County Mayo. We have booked a B&B in the town before heading out to the uncle’s farm, knowing that he and Ana and Carmel and Tony would insist that we stay with them. But we are twenty-four and will not be bridled. That night there is a ceilidh in the local pub and all the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends–long heard of but never met–gather and we the Yanks are the guests of honor. We crawl back in the wee hours but once again in the morning the whole crowd is together at Mass and when we leave we speak to a few new faces on the church steps which gives the priest time to beat us to the pub.  Two nights earlier in Kerry we had played guitar in an old sheep-farmers pub, but the caravan of hippies that showed up with their instruments wanted only country-and-western which was not my strong suit. But I was able to give them some Woody and some Hank nevertheless, and then a few rebel songs. It was a long and dangerous night on the Kerry road.

And at the same time, unbeknownst to me, John Lennon was in my uncle’s town, hiding, according to Kevin Barry’s brilliant novel Beatlebone. I would have loved to have met him, but in the novel, he was not in a very good state of mind. And he was trying very hard to stay under-the-radar.bookcover

The novel is built on the fact that in 1967 John bought Dorinish Island, one of the many small islands off the west coast of Ireland. He had great plans for it, but few of them succeeded. And he only visited it a few times.

But now in Beatlebone, it is a decade later, John’s creativity seems to have flat-lined and his life consists of baking bread and raising his young son, Sean. He rarely leaves his New York City high-rise. He is not feeling right. He has been through Primal Scream therapy, but is still forever haunted by the father who abandoned him and the mother who lived around the corner from the aunt who raised him.

And so, he comes to Ireland to spend some time on his island and to heal himself.

Neither of which is an easy task to complete.

John is chauffeured by an irascible driver named Cornelius O’Grady, who very well may be a shape-shifter and who has taken the responsibility to hide John from the press, which has been alerted that he is there in the West.

Cornelius is open and honest and uncowed by his famous fare. In fact, his advice and wisdom and observations show no sign of tact or concern. And his and John’s conversations are great fun. (At one point, Cornelius convinces John to grease back his hair, wear Cornelius’s dead father’s eyeglasses–he is already wearing the dead man’s suit– and say that he is his stuttering cousin Kenneth from England. All so that they can go undetected into a pop-up moonshine pub in the hills of Mayo.)

It is after escaping the hotel that Cornelius has stashed him in and spending the night in a cave on the beach that John has his conversation with the seal and where he realizes his new album BEATLEBONE. He maps the entire thing out in his head before he is gathered up by Cornelius. He is sure that it will be the album that will change his reputation, his legacy forever.

As I was reading Beatlebone for the first hundred pages, I wanted to text, e-mail, call friends and tell them that no more novels need be written for this is the definitive example. (I lean towards hyperbole.)  The language itself is exquisite and daring and

ARTS / FEATURES Kevin Barry

The novelist Kevin Barry. Photograph: BryanO’Brien/IRISHTIMES

imaginative. And that is what one would expect from Kevin Barry, whose greatly awarded City of Bohane was a tour-de-force of underworld argot and Dublin slang positioned in a post-apocalyptic Ireland.

Beatlebone is a novel that is so fresh, so funny, so beautifully amazing and accurate that one finds oneself reading out passages to anyone who listens. (Another fault of mine.) There is one oddly placed chapter where the author talks about his research for the novel that, while fascinating, might better have been placed  at the end or the beginning of the novel. But that is a minor quibble.

The rest is perfect. So much so, that many may give up writing fiction entirely.