In Kevin Barry’s ‘Night Boat to Tangier,’ two Irish gangsters are entertaining company

Ellen Akins

THE WASHINGTON POST – The mouth on this guy! So your mother might say – about all the foul language in “Night Boat to Tangier,” but about all the rest, too: the way Irish novelist Kevin Barry channels the music in every voice, from lowlife philosopher to slow-footed thug, ponderous wit to fluting child – and the comic genius in everyone.

Listen to these two Irishmen waiting – no, not for Godot, an inevitable comparison, but for protagonist Maurice’s missing 23-year-old daughter, Dilly, who might or might not be travelling on the titular night boat from (or to) Tangier.

“Did I ever tell you one time, Charlie, I was in love with an older lady, in Cadiz?”

“I’d nearly have remembered, Maurice.”

“You were younger then.”

“And you know what she’d do for me in the mornings?”

“I’m all ears.”

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

“She’d feed me sparrows, Charlie.”

Maurice and Charlie are old pals and rivals, feeling their age, drug smugglers who have made and squandered a fortune and on occasion lost whole boatloads of hashish. Now they’re haunting the Spanish port of Algeciras, where “the criminal despondency of half Europe had gathered. The air had a medieval tang. The vagrant children of many nations were crouched and high and drunken there … The port by night had a hot, diabolic quality. It rang of the past but was of the new century.”

In light of a couple shots of Hennessy, “the moment seems to flicker and glow, and the past becomes unstable. It shifts and rearranges back there.”

And so it does, as Maurice reflects on his life in a way that is at once atmospheric and pointillistic: Glimpses of a da who, being “from a line of madmen centuries deep,” is bound to have his own stay in the Mental, the Bin, the Bughouse; moments with Dilly’s mother, Cynthia, hazy with drink and drugs and lust – and money (“there was so much money and we were pauperised half the time. How … does that work?”); memories of “the old days in Cork, and in Barcelona, and in London, and in Malaga, and in the ghosted city of Cadiz” where there “was a sensation of lizards,” all shot through with as much menace as nostalgia. And absurdity. As is the present enterprise, the two men – “a vaudeville pair … one with a good eye, and one with a good leg” – producing fliers of Dilly’s face and demanding information, once at knifepoint, of any youngster with dreadlocks and a dog on a rope, which is how they picture the missing girl.

“Is there any end in sight, Maurice?” Charlie wonders.

“This is the great unfortunate thing,” Maurice reckons. “We might have a length of road to go yet.”

Unfortunate for them, maybe, but for readers, it will end too soon.