A beautiful novel that is both an intense rumination on family life and adulthood as well as a commentary on scuffling for survival under capitalism.
For more than a century now, Spain has been the refuge of the castaway, the fugitive, the bohemian and the person with a target on her back from around Europe (and sometimes even the US, as Hemingway would demonstrate). It is where Europeans go to go to ground. Or retire. The weather is lovely, the cost of living is low and the Spanish state is famously lax and inattentive. It is no wonder, then, that Spain has entered contemporary English-language popular culture as a gangster haven of drugs, crimes and chases (the film Sexy Beast is a recent standout). In Night Boat to Tangier, author Kevin Barry has Spain playing precisely this role of haven of the luckless/den of iniquity. On two separate timelines, his protagonists, Maurice (Moss) Hearne and Charlie Redmond, dart in and out of Spain as fortune dictates.
Moss and Charlie are natives of County Cork, Ireland, a location notorious for its connections to organized crime throughout the world on account of its busy ports and multiple ferry connections to continental Europe and North America. For anyone smuggling anything into or out of Ireland or the United Kingdom, Cork is bound to be a hub. Moss and Charlie, having grown up poor even by the standards of Cork City, enter this milieu with ambition and ruthlessness. They become successful drug runners, bringing Moroccan narcotics through Spain and into Cork before distributing them throughout the Republic of Ireland.
But the drug smuggling activities of Moss and Charlie are not what Night Boat to Tangier is about. This is not a genre paperback about violent gangsters having shootouts in Spanish villas overlooking the Mediterranean. Rather, the men’s gangsterism is just the context for the broader story about fatherhood and friendship. It is unjust to spoil anything here, but suffice it to say that Moss and Charlie have a complex, interwoven family situation back in Cork, which also happens to both strain and deepen their friendship over the course of time.
A full half of Night Boat to Tangier is set in a single day – 23 October 2018 – in the ferry port of Algeciras, Spain, the gateway for centuries for travelers passing from Europe to Africa. Moss and Charlie, now old men replete with war wounds from years of criminal behavior, are looking for Moss’ daughter, a barely-20-year-old who left Ireland to be a vagabond in sunny Spain. In Algeciras, the men reflect on their lives – hence the second timeline to their pasts in Cork and Spain – and hassle the other folks passing through the ferry terminal for information on the “missing” daughter.
This is a beautiful novel that is both an intense rumination on family life and adulthood as well as a commentary on scuffling for survival under capitalism. For fans of Hiberno-English, Barry has done a masterful job of collecting the unique lilt and lexicon of the rugged Cork slums in his characters’ voice patterns; he accomplishes this as well as does Guy Ritchie with the London accent in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. For anyone who has visited the sun-kissed but foreboding streets of the Andalusian cities of south Spain, the book also captures the sense of electricity and danger that is ever-present in the air of such places. This is literary fiction that nearly passes for a genre piece and it is all the better for it.