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.


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: Eggshells by Caitriona Lally… poignant hilarity

I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a book as much as Caitriona Lally’s Eggshells.


Nor can I remember a character who amused, entertained and wrenched my heart as much as Vivian, the eccentric young woman who gives us a tour of Dublin and of her unique wit and creative mind.

Vivian is unusual. So much so that when she was young her parents told her that she was not of this world and had been left by the fairies. And to be sure, Vivian has never much felt that she fits in, that she belongs to this world. So now, as a young woman, she spends her time searching Dublin for portals that will take her to that other world. She searches in the small vents built into the shelves of Trinity College Library, into the electric panel in front of the Gate Theater, in the ivy covered house on D’Olier Stree, through the small door in a department store on Grafton Street. But of course to no avail.

And her wanderings around Dublin City–with more than a jaunty nod to that other writer of peripatetic Dubliners, James Joyce–are a playful, magical tour of the city filled with word lists and wit, double entendres and non sequitors.

However, Vivian is very much alone in this world. Her parents are dead, her sister, who is also named Vivian, is repulsed and confused by her eccentricity, and she is living in the house that her dead great-aunt bequeathed to her, bordered on either side by neighbors who question her mental state.

Being lonely, she advertises for a friend, a friend named Penelope. Her reasoning is she wants to ask this Penelope why her name doesn’t rhyme with “antelope.” Plus she feels good about anyone who has three “Es” in her name.

Here is her advert that she tapes onto a tree:

WANTED: Friend Called Penelope
Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don’t Have Much to Say.
Good Sense of Humor Not Required
Because My Laugh Is a Work in Progress.
Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply.
Phone Vivian.

And such a friend appears: A middle-aged Penelope who paints cats in different costumes and who has her own satchel of issues. On their second visit together–a visit filled with tea and a large amount of cookies–Vivian learns that Penelope is forty-nine years old. (In her innocence, she had guessed she was sixty.) Penelope’s age worries her since one of the reasons she would like to have a friend is so that someone would go to her funeral. And in Vivian’s mind, Penelope might die before her…so she suggests a carrot rather than a biscuit improve her new friend’s health.

A sign of how much I am enjoying a book is often measured by how many times I read out passages to the people I am around. (It is an annoying habit, I am sure.) And I have read out so many passages of Eggshells to other people that some of them probably feel they don’t need to read it. Usually it happens when I have also been laughing out loud. And laughter happened throughout.

Vivian’s wonderful mind is filled with a logic that is both skewered and sound. Of course, a corn kernel might feel lonely off the cob, lemons might feel better scattered over Lemon Street, and the taxi at Ferryman’s Crossing (with a wife named Sharon which reminds her of Charon) might be able to take her across the river to Hades.

And it is this confluence of slanted logic and the real world on which the humor is built. To a large man, whom she believes might be a leprechaun, she asks if he takes “growth hormones.” For the social-services agent who comes to see if she is actively hunting for a job, she wears a hunter’s outfit. (And startles him mightily when she surprises him with a toy gun.) To the pest on the bus who badgers her for twenty euros, she offers him all that she has with her: lemons.

But my examples hardly capture the humor, for they are missing Vivian’s voice which is filled with innocence and faith and hope.

With Eggshells, Caitriona Lally has written a wondrous first novel filled with boisterous word play, hilarious oddities, charming narrative and an unforgettable protagonist. It is

Caitriona Lally

Caitriona Lally

a magical romp through Dublin, guided by a lonely but hopeful and inventive young woman.

Eggshells is the work of an important new voice in fiction, a voice that I am greatly looking forward to hearing again soon.




Book Review: Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

A few weeks back I saw a photograph of Jonathan Letham’s favorite books.   Among the titles on the row of spines,  I noticed a book by Leonard Cohen called Beautiful Losers.

Now, I am a big Cohen fan.  I listen to and play his music frequently–both new and old– and I am well aware of his  poetry, so I assumed Beautiful Losers was one such poetry collection.

I was wrong. It was a novel, first published in 1964–several years before the release of his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen.

And so I thought, what the hell.

Beautiful Losers is very much a work of its times. Frenetic and speeding. Erotic and rambling. Big-hearted and narcissistic.

It is the story of an unnamed narrator whose other two partners in a odd love-triangle –his wife and an elusive shaman-like man named F.–are dead. (His wife committed suicide in the unconventional way of sitting at the bottom of an elevator shaft and having the elevator crush her. F. is a member of the Canadian Parliament.) The other object of his love/lust is also dead but she’s been dead for 300 years and is up for canonization by the Catholic Church, Catherine Tekakwitha, the virgin of the Iroquois.

There are betrayals and reversals and climaxes and re-unions.  There is sex and loneliness and more sex.  There is 17th-century genocide and 20th-century nationalism and separatism. (This is early 1960s Montreal, after all.)  There are Joycean lists and Henry Miller-like rhapsodies, but all and all the whole thing seemed to me to be very much a part of the 60’s gestalt. (One of my favorite scenes is when the naked narrator watches his wife and her/his lover shoot up, only to discover later that they are injecting an odd mix of heroin and Lourdes water. He found the advertisement/receipts for the Lourdes water in his wife’s dresser drawer)

The whole thing reminded me more of late Ken Kesey or even Gilbert Sorrentino than it reminded me of Joyce or Miller (which connection the book jacket blurbs go on and on about). The attempt seemed old and tired…but maybe because  the energy of those times seems so old these days as well.  True, it is a pastiche of Joyce–but then again how many young artists were trying the same at the time.

But more than anything else, Beautiful Losers is the announcement of a unique and individual voice.  That that voice ultimately decided to be heard through poetry and song rather than through fiction was a decision that the artist himself made.

And I for one believe it was a right decision.

In a very early poem, Cohen wrote:

So you’re the kind of vegetarian

Who only eats roses

Is that what you meant

with your beautiful losers?”

I’m not sure if this is where Cohen got the title for his novel or precisely what these lines might mean, but it reflects the  word usage and mindset of the novel.

Movie Review: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, dir.)…verisimilitude in film

“Verisimilitude” is a word I know from movie criticism and from literary criticism. I define it as a strict faithfulness to the truth of reality. And it is a concept that the movie director, Richard Linklater, has striven for in his triology, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. In many ways he has succeeded.

For those who don’t know, in 1995, Linklater cast his stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the first movie, Before Sunrise, as young twenty-somethings who meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna, who spend a day and night together and go their separate ways. (That the day is June 16th, the day that James Joyce met his life partner Nora Barnacle and the day that his novel Ulysses takes place is one of the many Joycean allusions in the triology.)

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke)
in Before Sunrise (1995)

To be truthful to his quest for truthfulness, Linklater nine years later, cast the same two actors to play the same characters who happen to meet again nine years later. This time Hawke’s Jesse is on a book tour in Paris when Delpy’s Celine meets him. His book–which fictionalizes the day they had spent together a decade ago–is a success. They spend this second time together walking through Paris before he must fly back to America. (Because the film takes place in mid-afternoon, Linklater only shot at that time to get the light exactly right. This is verisimilitide. )

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in  Before Sunset2004

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in
Before Sunset 2004

Now in the summer of 2013, we catch up once more with Jesse and Celine. As it is with the actors, it is with the characters–nine more years have passed for both. Now, in Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse have been together for nearly a decade. They have twin girls, and Jesse’s son with his ex-wife, now a young boy going into high-school, has spent the summer with his father and his new family in Greece.

In fact, as the film begins, Jesse is dropping his son off at the airport for the return flight home. Jesse is now a very successful novelist, having written two critically and commercially acclaimed novels (both based on the events that we saw in the previous two movies.) However, he is unhappy about his distance from his son and is toying with the idea of moving his European family to Chicago to be closer to the boy.

The film is divided into three basic scenes: the trip to the airport, a dinner at the villa they are sharing, and a night at hotel together without their daughters (a gift from their friends at the villa.) In the first scene, we see Jesse struggling with saying farewell to his son, Celine announcing that she has the opportunity to change jobs, and the two bantering amicably in the car, both daughters asleep in the back seat. However, Celine does not like the idea of a move to America or the prospect of refusing the career opportunity that has just now cropped up.

Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) in Before Midnight (2013)

Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke)
in Before Midnight (2013)

The second scene is at their villa where the males sit outside discussing literature while Celine and the women prepare the dinner. It is light, gregarious, and beautiful–but you feel the emotion lying low within Celine. The dinner itself is wonderful. At turns, amusing, intelligent, and poignant, the conversation is witty and enjoyable. There is a tad of acid in some of Celine’s comments, but for the most part, it is a dinner which I very much would have liked to have joined.

As a gift, their friends have bought them a child-free night in a hotel in the local town. After dinner, the two walk into town, talk, reminisce, and plan for the future. In the lobby, Jesse is recognized and asked to sign a book. Celine is also asked, as the reader assumes (correctly) that she is the woman whom Jesse writes about. She reluctantly agrees.

The night however does not go exactly the way they had planned.

Like its predecessors, Before Midnight is wonderful because it seems real. (There’s that “verisimiltude” again.) People talk, plan, argue, hurt, and enjoy. There are no cataclysmic disasters pushing them into conflict, no terrorists to fight, no snarky humor to overcome. It is simply two people at a patch in their relationship that is proving a little rough. In their forties now (both the actors and the characters), they are looking at life differently and with more cognizance of its quick passing. If I have problem, it is that Celine’s outburst–while we anticipate its coming–still seems to come out of nowhere. But it is wonderfully honest and wonderfully real.

But, maybe that’s the truth of life–and the truth of relationships–we know little of the turmoil going on in a partner’s soul. Maybe that’s the truth of the movie.

And while Hawke and Delpy have comfortably grown into their parts for the past two decades and while the small supporting cast is more than excellent (Walter Lassally as the aging writer with whom they are staying, Xenia Kalogeropoulou as his widowed friend, and Yiannis Papadopoulos and Athina Rachel Tsangari as the couple who present them with the child-free night), it is the setting that struck me most. Filmed on the southern Peloponnesian coast, it is filled with gorgeous coastline, quaint villages, memorable sunsets, and illuminating sunlight. When I got home from the film, I spent the next two days searching real-estate in the area.

I spent two weeks there once. I wouldn’t mind spending more.

Here’s the trailer, if you want:

Yes, Yes, Yes: Affirmation ala Molly Bloom

yes I said yes I will Yes.

Last Sunday was Bloomsday, the international celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

Dublin had its usual extravaganza with crowds retracing Leopold Bloom’s wanderings and with women’s hats that rivaled those worn at major horse races (remember to bet it all on “throwaway.”) In New York, the complete novel was read outside writer Colum McCann’s tavern, aptly named Ulysses. And at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, (where Joyce’s manuscript is housed) there was, beside the usual full reading, an unusual installation.

The artist, Jessica Deane Rosner, wrote out the entire text of the novel on 310 yellow, rubber, dish gloves and suspended them from the gallery ceiling in a very Joycean spiral. Rosner stated that it was Joyce who showed us that the things of everyday life–including the muck and the un-pretty–are the very essence of and inspiration for Art.

And so she used the mundane kitchen gloves to carry Joyce’s text–a text replete with the beauty of life’s mundane grime and natural effluences.

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Text of Ulysses on yellow rubber gloves.

Jessica Deane Rosner's Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. …

I want to talk about the last seven words of the novel, the strong affirmation that ended Molly Bloom’s long nighttime reverie in the early hours of June 17, 1904.

It is this affirmation, the “yes I said yes I will Yes” that makes Ulysses so important. For, if ever there was a modern Everyman, it is her husband, Leopold Bloom. Leopold the ridiculous, the schlump, the man she has cuckolded just hours before. Leopold the grieving, the masturbatory, the lecherous, the neighborly, the isolated, the humane, the persecuted. And to him–and he is each of us– Molly proclaims a resounding Yes!

And we all need to do more of the same. To say “Yes.”

illustration 2012 jpbohannon

illustration © 2012 jpbohannon

I have a good friend, Ken Campbell, who served thirteen long months in Vietnam before becoming one of the leading figures in the Vietnam Vets Against the War movement. This fall the two of us went together to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I wallowed in the existential bleakness; he did not. He enjoyed the company. He had spent too long in Vietnam, wondering every night if he was going to live another day, and today he has no time for Beckett’s desperate vision.

He sides much more with Molly Bloom’s “Yes”!

So here’s to saying “yes.” Saying “yes” to all the myriad things and people that life places in front of us: like the noodle shop at 56th and 6th in NYC… the children’s fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway…the surprise of 310 yellow rubber gloves hanging from an elegant ceiling.

“I is someone else”: Rimbaud–l’enfant terrible

rimbaud drawing

illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

A colleague came up to me with a problem–a problem with some unruly boys who had been displaying a growing disrespect towards her, coupled with a sophomoric sexism that went beyond their adolescent asininity and a smattering of racism. She then went on to say that to make matters worse, they were also very good writers. I wondered to myself if what she said was not necessarily atypical–that their innate creativity is being strangled by the dysfunctions of the modern educational system and that that is one cause of their intractability.

To make the point, I told her, I wouldn’t want to have taught Rimbaud.

Ah, Rimbaud, the boy-child terror who created haunting, mesmerizing verses until he was 21 and then quit to become a businessman, to dabble in gun-running in Africa, and to even try to join the U.S. Navy. But whatever he did from that point on, he had quit writing and refused to talk about it thereafter. Yet in those five or six years in late adolescence, he cut a swath of creativity and destruction, of love and violence, of intelligence and stupidity–and blazed into the pantheon of world poetry.

In actuality, however, Rimbaud was in fact a fine, model student. While he was in school, he usually walked away with the academic prizes given out at the end of a school year. He wrote poetry in in his native French, as well as in Latin and Greek, mature verse, some of which is still anthologized. Indeed, he was a stellar student. But then he quit school.

When he was still sixteen–and with the encouragement and support of the older Paul Verlaine whom he had enamored with some verses –Rimbaud first ran away to Paris. There he began a meteoric life of debauchery, anarchism, promiscuity, violence, substance abuse–and the most intense poetic creativity.

And like a meteor, Rimbaud burned out quickly. His intense and volatile love affair with Verlaine ended with Verlaine shooting him twice in the arm. Verlaine was arrested and served two years in prison.

Wounded Rimbaud by Jef Rosman, 1873

Wounded Rimbaud by Jef Rosman, 1873

When Verlaine was released from prison, Rimbaud handed him a sheaf of loose papers which would become Illuminations, his last major work. Rimbaud was but 21 years old. He was already an old poet. Verlaine had published his FIRST book at 21. Rimbaud was finished by then. (A series of prose reflections, Illuminations is akin–in its intent–to the epiphanies that Joyce gathered –at the beginning of his career, however. )

Here are some 4 stanzas from Rimbaud’s 100 line poem The Drunken Boat (Le Bateau Ivre). He was sixteen when he wrote it!

But now I, a boat lost under the hair of coves,
Hurled by the hurricane into the birdless ether,
I, whose wreck, dead-drunk and sodden with water,
neither Monitor nor Hanse ships would have fished up;

Free, smoking, risen from violet fogs,
I who bored through the wall of the reddening sky
Which bears a sweetmeat good poets find delicious,
Lichens of sunlight [mixed] with azure snot,

Who ran, speckled with lunula of electricity,
A crazy plank, with black sea-horses for escort,
When Julys were crushing with cudgel blows
Skies of ultramarine into burning funnels;

I who trembled, to feel at fifty leagues’ distance
The groans of Behemoth’s rutting, and of the dense Maelstroms
Eternal spinner of blue immobilities
I long for Europe with it’s aged old parapets!
Arthur Rimbaud, the Collected Works, translated by Oliver Bernard)

So the question remains “Would I want to have taught Rimbaud?” I am not sure. I am not sure of myself. Rimbaud–the excellent student, remember–was fortunate to have an exceptional school teacher and mentor, George Izambard, who fostered and encouraged the boy’s talent, gave him free access to his personal library and pushed him towards greatness. That is a big responsibility, to see and encourage greatness.

But in a large way, that is the true nature of teaching–whether it is a future Rimbaud or not. For how are we to know?

A Portrait of the Artist with One Left Foot

Joyce  ©2013 by J.P. Bohannon

illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

I’ve had the nice experience of putting two seemingly different works together and seeing startling comparisons that I hadn’t thought of before. In the class I am teaching on Irish Literature, we had begun the semester with Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From there we moved through some Frank O’Connor stories, some Yeats poems, and three plays by John Millington Synge. And then as a breather, I showed the film My Left Foot, based on the autobiography of the Dublin poet, painter and writer, Christy Brown.

The Artist Joyce as a Young Man

The Artist Joyce as a Young Man

Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot

Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot

I have a fond relationship with My Left Foot which began long before the film was released. A friend of mine was living in San Francisco, working as a nurse. She would search the used book shops looking for the odd nugget, and she was always very kind to me. Every so often there would be a T-shirt from some cleverly-named dive bar, an esoteric album that no one knew about it, or a used book she found in her travels. One day, in the mail came a package containing My Left Foot by Christy Brown. I didn’t know the book at the time though it was twenty years old by then, but the worn and ragged dust jacket and the beaming face of Christy Brown on the back announced the joy, the vibrancy, the humor, and the pathos of the story inside.

I remember reading it twice in a short space of time, of lending it to a friend, and then lending it to another, and soon I lost track of it. And, to be truthful, I forgot about it. Until the movie was released and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance announced to the world that this was someone to watch.

Viewing it this past week, so close to having finished Joyce’s Portrait, however, impressed on me how similar the story of these two Irish artists are. Joyce’s hero–Stephen Dedalus–is a sensitive, young child, bullied a bit at school, helpless without his glasses.

Christy Brown

Christy Brown

That Christy is also helpless, everyone assumes. Born with cerebral palsy and able to move only his left leg, he spends his early years lying under the stairs watching his family interact with each other—for better or worse. Joyce’s novel also begins with the early interactions of the family. From the hairy face of his father and the nicer smell of his mother when he was an infant to the fierce political/religious argument at Christmas Dinner, the Daedalus family is indeed similar to the Brown family. Particularly in the characterization of the fathers and mothers.

Simon Dedalus and Paddy Brown are hard men, perhaps a bit too fond of the drink. And both young boys, Christy and Stephen, see it as their responsibility to save their families from the fathers’ excesses. The mothers are doting: Christy’s mother innately sure that her son was more than just the vegetable that everyone believed him to be and Dedalus’ mother praying for her son’s soul and protecting him from his father’s increasing wrath.

And it wouldn’t be an Irish tale, if religion didn’t play a part. Father Arnall’s sermon on hell affects Stephen to such a large degree that he believes he might have a priestly vocation. And Christy is taught religion by a priest who comes to the house and who is also fond of describing the fires of hell–and causing young Christy no end of terrors.

Relations with the opposite sex are a stumbling block in both works as well. Sensitive Stephen vacillates from madonna to whore to madonna throughout, while Christy–caged within his crippled body–falls in love easily and is rebuked as often.

But the importance of both works is the creation of the Artist. Joyce’s Dedalus ultimately abandons church, nation and family in order to strike out on his own and “forge …the consciousness of [his] race,” while Christy embraces that world–dear dirty old Dublin and his sprawling family–to find the inspiration of his art. The artistic output–however disparate–is not the point here. The point is the development of an artist within similar constraints and backgrounds, a tale of two young men who travel the same narrative arc in order to discover the art that is within them.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

To one and all, Happy St. Patrick’s Day.