Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry review – darkly comic voyage into the abyss

Ageing Irish gangsters trade banter in a Spanish ferry terminal, in this beautifully written two-hander about crime’s toll on the soul

Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne are Cork drug dealers, former big-time suppliers and users. Now into their 50s, their black money is squandered; they have done and could still do terrible things. “The years are rolling out like tide now. There is old weather on their faces, on the hard lines of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths. But they retain – just about – a rakish air.”

It’s October 2018, and Charlie and Maurice find themselves keeping vigil at the Algeciras ferry terminal in southern Spain, where the night boats to Tangier depart and dock. This place has the clear contours of purgatory, perhaps one that Charlie and Maurice deserve. It is a Hades crossing point, a portal to dread.

Yet what these two horrors of men – and they are, by their own confession, flawed fellows – are carrying is a cache of missing person posters; desperately, pathetically, they are trying to find Dilly, Charlie’s 23-year-old daughter. Dilly fled Ireland after the death of her mother to join new age travellers, moving on queasy and confounding ley lines between Spain and north Africa in ways Charlie and Maurice struggle to fathom. They have not seen Dilly for three years, but they have street intelligence of her whereabouts, often gleaned by intimidation. They are still tenacious, menacing, solipsistic guys, but their chances are slim and their wait at the terminal is the temporal anchor of a book that deftly pivots elsewhere.

As the two men exchange a supple flow of defeated banter and craic, we see that they are cut straight from the toxic cloth of Beckett; an iPhone Hamm and Clov, they play out their own endgame, one urging the other to utterance in all the glory and vinegar of Irish disillusion:

Personally speaking, Maurice? My arse isn’t right since the octopus we ate in Malaga.
Is it saying hello to you, Charlie?
It is, yeah. And of course the octopus wasn’t the worst of Malaga.
…. They look into the distance. They send up their sighs. Their talk is a shield against feeling.

To avoid plot spoiling, let me say that what we assume is a two-hander crime novel swells with plenitude into an emotionally crushing panorama of two friends gone wildly astray, punished by regret but with their grim solidarity intact – so far. This is not a journey devoid of dark humour; there are back-breaking moments of mirth, as well as real madness and love (this is complicated, since Maurice’s love was for Charlie’s wife, Cynthia).

The novel puts a great deal of procedural crime fiction into perspective as puerile and exploitative fluff. For here is a meticulous, devastatingly vivid portrayal of serious crime and its real consequences: the waste, the insane risks, the threat of demonic violence, the punishing paranoia and the vulgar glut of cash reward packed into dodgy real estate or money laundering ventures. Most of all, though, the toll is taken on the human soul itself.

Barry, winner of the Impac Dublin literary award for City of Bohane and the Goldsmiths prize for Beatlebone, is a clairvoyant narrator of the male psyche and a consistent lyrical visionary. The prose is a caress, rolling out in swift, spaced paragraphs, a telegraphese of fleeting consciousness: “The roads after the rain were black, sliding tongues and gleamed.” “The cold white moon speaks highly of the coming winter.” Here is the creepy, nosing landlord of a west Ireland cottage where Charlie and Cynthia try to hide out from dangerous men: “There was a papery film, like mothskin stretched over his eyes. He slithered about making goldfish gasps as if traumatised by an otherworld invisible but to his eyes.”

Barry’s sensibility is eerie; he is attuned to spirits, to malevolent presences, the psychic tundra around us. But what distinguishes this book beyond its humour, terror and beauty of description is its moral perception. For this is no liberal forgiveness tract for naughty boys: it is a plunging spiritual immersion into the parlous souls of wrongful men. There is scant chance of anything as vulgar as redemption down by the Tangier ferry for Charlie or Maurice; after all, who is young Dilly really running away from? Yet it is impossible to finish the novel without loving and caring for each protagonist in all their verbose fallibility. We could pray for Charlie and Maurice – and wow, they need it.

• Alan Warner’s next novel, Kitchenly 434, will be published by Faber in 2020. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry is published by Canongate (RRP £14.99) To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Alan Warner

The GuardianTramp

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