Night Boat to Tangier

Kevin Barry

Canongate, £14.99

Maurice and Charlie are waiting at the Spanish port of Algeciras. They are watching. Things are tense and urgent, just as they should be at the connection point between two continents, and “footsteps that moved over dockside stones and the gangplank had the certain reminiscence of war.” The two men, old Irish gangsters, believe a daughter will be on one of the sailings between Europe and Africa. So, they wait and they watch in “one of the places of the earth designed for a good wallow”.

This is Night Boat to Tangier, the new book by Kevin Barry. Maurice and Charlie talk like pistons, exchanging lines so quickly it’s like they’re auditioning to fill the vacancy in the Beastie Boys. Their backgrounds are in drugs, violence and relationships that went sour even before they got tangled. Slowly it becomes apparent that they are people who scrubbed out any chance of a happy ending right back at the start.

Beatlebone, Barry’s previous novel, had a bleak, aimless quality, but Night Boat to Tangier has a much warmer sense of narrative. But enough of narrative. Before Beatlebone, City of Bohane marked him as a mad, graffiti-poetic stylist and it is as a stylist that he should be enjoyed. First, the seemingly the mundane. Barry has dialogue ears that were trained while one hand stopped a pint from escaping. That is, he is good at Man Talk. But he is also an expert in the field of language performed as a ritual in response to certain promptings. Such is his expertise that it’s easy to imagine him conversing happily with your granny between bingo calls. Towards the end of the book, Charlie tells Maurice that one of the great talents of the Irish “is the walking close-in to buildings to keep the rain off ourselves.” I don’t know if that is a verbal heirloom or counterfeit goods, but a good forgery depends on knowing the real thing.

Barry is wide-open to the supernatural, as if there wasn’t enough around here to keep you fretting into the afterlife. The book is woozy with lines like: “The days were cold as evil but the evenings spread magic from the sea inwards and stretched out and tapped the place until it was open to our dreaming.” I don’t know if he believes in reincarnation or transubstantiation, but I’d bet he does, and that those beliefs ghost into his wonderful adeptness with simile and metaphor. “The men remain on the bench watchful as hawks and dumb as spoons.” Of course, spoons are dumber than knives and forks! They’re the idiots of the cutlery drawer! Another favourite: “She had a smile like a home-made explosive device.” Boom. Lines like that make me want to punch the air like I’m singing the final chorus from an 80s power ballad.

And then something surprising happened: the book became an account of volatile love on the continent. Admittedly, I think about James Salter a lot, but I wasn’t expecting to think about him when I was reading a book by Kevin Barry. Night Boat to Tangier doesn’t have the exquisite poise of A Sport and a Pastime, but for a time it has the same scenes made of details ordered to stand tall. Salter was once talking to Richard Ford about their approach to writing and Ford said that he always told his students “don’t cheap up on me”. Barry – who once described himself as a “man who had never knowingly underfed an adjective” – couldn’t “cheap up” if you paid him.

The relationship between Barry’s imagination and his style is akin to that between a gang of dogs and a sledge – a sledge from which the driver was pitched into a ravine some way back. Sometimes the same terrain is covered. For example, “the evenings were stretching a little and the roads after rain were black sliding tongues and gleamed” is very similar to, but not quite as good as, “the road unfurls as a black tongue and laps at the night”. The first line is from Night Boat to Tangier, the second from Beatlebone. No matter. Barry’s mind is surely no filing cabinet, unless you think of it as one pushed out of a fifth storey window into a swimming pool.

Night Boat to Tangier moves at the speed of today turning into tomorrow when you’re not paying attention, but I still found it settled comfortably in the noirish ambience created by Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. It is a book about consequences, which means it’s a book about the past. “The past is uncertain, mobile. It shifts and rearranges back there,” Barry writes. Night Boat to Tangier suggests the past comes in waves, relentlessly, always different and yet always the same, and all we can put against it are the shifting sands of our present self.