It’s a stereotypical Irish scene. A beleaguered man is tending to a failing and unhappy farm. There’s trouble in the poultry shed. If this were a film, there would be close-ups of a sweat-ridden brow, a taut, unending blue sky, the rugged earth. What wrenches you out of this fantasy is the first line of dialogue, delivered matter-of-factly by the farmer, John, to his wife: ‘Mary? I’ll ask you again. How many times did you come?’ This isn’t your average farm but a site of adultery, fecklessness, vice. This is a Kevin Barry short story because it could only be a Kevin Barry short story.
There Are Little Kingdoms, the collection in which this story appeared, was published in October 2007. Two months later, the model Katy French died from a fatal reaction to cocaine and ephedrine. The Irish media treated her death as the country’s very own Princess Diana moment, the generation-defining loss of a famous blonde, ‘the glamorous golden child of the flamboyant Celtic Tiger generation’. In 2008, Ireland’s economy crashed. These events aren’t explicitly linked and yet, in my mind, they remain frozen and looped.
I graduated from university in 2011. The recession persisted despite the IMF’s bailout of Ireland’s banks in 2010. Many of my friends emigrated. That same year, on duty in a nightclub cloakroom, I read There Are Little Kingdoms for the first time. Its candour, its joyful coarseness, was a counterpoint to the consumption and smug affectation of the Celtic Tiger years. Barry seemed to be mounting a one-man opposition to the SUVs, the home extensions, the teenagers overspending on their parents’ credit cards, the ‘Celtic Tiger Cubs’ losing their virginity on lavish, post-exam holidays.
Those of us reared in the countryside were less blessed. We were still doing what Barry and his friends did in the 1980s: sitting indoors, in sprawling, often unfinished estates watching films with the devotion of young people with nothing else to do. We may have been wearing American T-shirts and jeans, lip gloss promoted by models (the legacy of the boom was the awful homogenisation of everything), but we still recited lines from films with the same conviction that Barry and his friends, two decades previously, had recited Travis’s monologue in the closing scene of Paris, Texas.
What struck me about There Are Little Kingdoms was the way Barry took the topography of small-town life – the pub, the church, the chipper – and twisted it until it became wholly strange. The stories were peculiar, askance, alert to dark, inappropriate truths about Ireland. My youth became heroic, romantic. Even the act of writing a collection set in the sticks during the most capitalist, self-interested and metropolitan period of Irish history was cheeky. Of course, Barry wanted to be noticed. It was in the attitude, the swagger of his sentences, their uncontainable energy. He had cool, an American import.
Barry’s concerns have changed since 2007, but there has been no slackening off. The male codependents in his latest novel, Night Boat to Tangier, are proudly reptilian. As they announce with indecent pride, they wear excellent fucking shoes. Barry specialises in character pairings – death-driven, addicted to each other – in a way reminiscent of Beckett. The new book is being described as Beckettian for a more obvious reason: it is about two men and they are waiting. But more than Barry’s other work, Night Boat to Tangier feels like a sequel to There Are Little Kingdoms. The elements are all there: the corruption that a large amount of money breeds, the consequences of adultery, the guilt and shame of men. This time though, death looms larger. If There Are Little Kingdoms captured the languor and long afternoons that come with life on the dole, then time is not on the side of the protagonists in Night Boat to Tangier.
The novel opens with a stage direction that could have been lifted from Godot: ‘Two Irishmen sombre in the dank light of the terminal make gestures of long-sufferance and woe – they are born to such gestures, and offer them easily.’ Maurice Hearne and his friend Charlie Redmond, both in their early fifties, both gangsters, are waiting for Dilly, Maurice’s dreadlocked, 23-year-old daughter whom he hasn’t seen for three years. The reason for their estrangement is made clear in a series of brutal, disorienting flashbacks. Dilly’s childhood was marred by her parents’ meannesses and tawdry affairs. It’s easy to understand why she got out as soon as she could.
Charlie and Maurice share an enduring love for Rumble Fish, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel of teenage disaffection, recklessness and insanity. Night Boat to Tangier is a sort of coming-of-age story, except the central characters are middle-aged already. Dilly, who has ‘a smile like a homemade explosive device’, has suffered most for their irresponsibility. She witnessed her parents’ craziness, their separation and her mother’s death, all before turning 18. She saw them hammering into the Jameson, the Powers, taking breakneck quantities of cocaine and heroin. From childhood, she was schooled in the language of criminality, a quick, slippery evasiveness (a guard asks for her father’s phone number; ‘He has different numbers,’ she replies). Her parents graduated from bohemia into ‘a season of hopeless lust’, and then began frantically fucking anyone within reach. Barry has never been a moralist – the extramarital sex is exuberantly described and pleasingly dirty – but you can’t shake the sense, throughout the novel, that Maurice is tying a large brick to himself and preparing to walk into the sea. As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, ‘Novels that are profoundly about illicit fornication have a way of ending on accidents, illness or death.’ Night Boat to Tangier is no different. Maurice, like his father before him, ends up in a mental institution that he cheerfully refers to as ‘The Bughouse’. Charlie lands, coincidentally or fatefully, in the same room. Dilly visits and looks on, coldly amused, as the two men watch Rumble Fish and recite the script, their mouths moving in time with the actors’.
Charlie wakes up in the hospital ‘with the startling realisation that he was a criminal – it was the first time in his life he had considered himself as such’. It might also be the first time it occurs to the reader. Charlie and Maurice are charming gangsters, with so much style and wit that you forgive their shortsightedness and greed when the money starts rolling in, during a section of the novel that gestures towards the Celtic Tiger and its subsequent collapse. There is unspoken suspicion and anger everywhere. ‘Money brings up the fear,’ Charlie tells Maurice. Maurice builds nine houses but his ambitions are thwarted by disappearing builders, structural problems, his own rampant egotism. The result is eight empty houses (he lives in the ninth), and a broken marriage. The houses seem to decay before anyone has set foot in them. Money ruins everything it touches, pulling lives out of shape and inducing a collective madness. ‘Only the Russians,’ Maurice says, ‘only the cunten Russians … have less class than us when they get a few pound.’ But the alternative isn’t compelling either. Confronted by a couple of ‘crusty girls’ who share Dilly’s non-materialist worldview, Charlie wonders about the appeal. ‘It’s freedom,’ one of the girls says. ‘It’s poverty,’ Charlie responds. ‘Poverty is always for free.’
Dilly wants a normal life unlike the one she inherited from her parents. Her mother, Cynthia, dismisses this pipe dream early in the novel: ‘The fear of turning into our parents,’ she says, ‘is what turns us into our fucking parents.’ Maurice recalls visiting his own father, a few weeks before his suicide, in a locked ward, shuffling around in stained pyjamas. He makes a half-hearted attempt at intimacy, reaching across the table to touch his father’s hand, but something stops him. ‘Something? The land, the air, the sky; our church, our sea, our blood.’ Night Boat to Tangier is about fatherhood, the good and bad together. Karima, an occultist Maurice takes up with, tells him: ‘Fathers throw the long shadows. We get over the mothers, at last, but hardly ever the fathers.’ Barry has always been exceptionally attentive to the silences of men, with an eye sympathetically trained on their weaknesses, on their secrets, their irritations, their routines, their obsessions, their inadequate responses, the frustration caused by their inadequate responses. Maurice hovers in the doorway of Dilly’s life, wavering, unsure when to step in. ‘You know that I love you, don’t you?’ Maurice says. But time can’t be reversed. The blank spaces that Barry inserts between paragraphs, the empty gaps in the text, seem to signify accumulated pain.
Maurice’s feelings about Cynthia – ‘He wished to cause her pain. He wished to devote the last of his life to her’ – could as easily apply to his feelings about Charlie. Their friendship, like many friendships developed in adolescence, is sustained by their mythologising of it. At the height of their mental instability, Maurice and Charlie repeatedly return to Rumble Fish, in an attempt to restore their idea of themselves:
They had watched it when they were 16 or 17, until the tape had worn thin on the VHS and the footage went snowy, a monochrome dream of violence, death and helpless brotherhood, the Motorcycle Boy and Rusty James, and the lights of Tulsa were coldly burning, and their own world could be redrawn to its dimensions.