In the Spanish port town of Algeciras, across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco’s northern tip, the Irish friends watch and wait, looking much the worse for wear.
Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond have put a lot of mileage on their bodies in the decades since they were schoolboys in Cork, embarking on a glamorous criminality. Reasonably clever about it once, and lucky, too, they made piles of money running drugs. This port? They’ve known it since back in the day.
By now they’ve devolved into the species of human wreckage that blends into the background of seedy, sketchy spots like the ferry terminal, where they’re camped out in the hope of finding their lost girl.
“They are in their low fifties. 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.”
They retain as well the capacity for perpetrating grievous harm, and not only upon themselves, though that’s a habit they’ve permanently honed. Underestimate these two tattered, melancholic thugs at your peril. They’re the type that might set your own dogs against you.
In Kevin Barry’s “Night Boat to Tangier,” a darkly incantatory tragicomedy of love and betrayal, haunted lineage and squandered chances, Maurice and Charlie cannot quench their yearning for reunion with their vanished Dilly, Maurice’s daughter.
She’s 23 now, gone three years, and the photo they’ve put on the fliers they hand out shows an outdated version of whoever she’s become. When she slipped off and disappeared, all of them were fresh in their grief for Cynthia, her mother, the woman both her father and his best friend loved — obsessively, erratically, dysfunctionally, cruelly, competitively, but nonetheless.
The two men were, Cynthia knew as she lay dying, the one thing that they would never mean to be: a danger to her daughter.
“Dilly, what you have to know?” she said toward the end, her ravaging illness implacable, the rising inflection in her voice not really a question at all. “Is that you can’t be around them. You need to go away and not come back.”
And so Dilly did, absenting herself in a fit of self-preservation from these disastrous men she’d loved all her life, severing in the process Maurice and Charlie’s one remaining worldly link to Cynthia. Now, as they sit and skulk about the terminal, they have reason to believe that Dilly will be passing through, on a boat to or from Tangier.
Barry rightly landed on the Booker Prize longlist with this, his beautifully paced, emotionally wise third novel. Spare in its prose, capacious in its understanding, it’s as eerily attuned as his last one, “Beatlebone,” to the ancient spirits that flit through the Irish landscape, and as festering with unsavory personages as his debut, “City of Bohane.”
In his lilting voice, with language whose textures tap all the senses (language that can be, in its casual, colorful profanity, difficult to quote here), Barry will lull you right under his spell and into a wary sympathy for the pain of these men with their battered, hopeful hearts. You will feel this even as you recognize that they’d be perfectly at home in, say, the world of Martin McDonagh’s movie “In Bruges.” Explosive, uncalled-for violence doesn’t ruffle them a whit.
How, by the way, did Maurice end up with just the one seeing eye, and Charlie with just the one working leg? Gruesome stories both, when Barry gets to telling them in chapters that alternate between their vigil in the autumn of 2018 and the mad, ruinous decades that led up to it.
“We’re an awful pair,” Maurice attests, menacing a young stranger.
“Deranged,” Charlie agrees. “Devil-sent.”
Pretty much, yeah. And what do you do if you’re Dilly, and this is your heritage? If these are your people?
Barry takes his time bringing the Irish women of this continent-hopping novel into focus, and when he does, the power of their presence — with their solidity, their agency — shocks our perceptions into new directions.
Because as much as “Night Boat to Tangier” is about the familial and emotional ties that can bind people forever and harm them in the process, it’s also about the ability to choose: stay or go, even if achieving that freedom causes heartbreak — for those who stay and also the one who goes.
“I mean,” Maurice tells Charlie, “it’s as profound an experience as the world has to offer, in a way, is a broken heart.”
Ah, but it’s portable. If you cut those ties and board that ferry to leave for good, you’ll take your broken heart along.
NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER
By Kevin Barry
Doubleday, 272 pp., $25.95
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.