This novel is hard to quote. Nearly every other sentence contains pungent Anglo-Saxon nouns and gerunds. If you stripped them all out, this novel would lose eight percent of its body weight. “We must always be on guard against mediocre cussing in our writing,” the novelist Katherine Dunn wrote, in a small book called “On Cussing.” There’s nothing middling about the swearing here. This novel rates at least a 6.9 on the Irvine Welsh scale.
There’s an overemotional side to “Night Boat to Tangier,” and Barry sometimes lays it on fairly thick. There are many lines such as “Trouble finds me, Charlie said, and a stray tear rolled down his sentimental cheek” and “the place spoke of broken hearts” and “the likes of you and me won’t pass this way again.”
But Barry is such a deft and generous writer that he gets the honey-to-acid blend almost exactly right. He also spackles his novel with poetic utterances that tend to land neatly: “The city ran a swarm of fast anchovy faces”; “An attack dog barks a yard of stars”; “the overbite of her white teeth was cinema.”
We’ve met guys like Maurice and Charlie before, of course. They’re nifty guys at loose ends, to use Jim Harrison’s phrase, of a somewhat moth-eaten variety. We know them from Charles Bukowski’s work, from the delightful novels of the Scottish writer James Kelman, from William Kennedy’s “Ironweed,” from Elmore Leonard and many others. But Barry manages to make this territory his own, and to make it fresh.
Between Maurice and Charlie there has been cuckolding, knife fights, drug deals gone bad. Charlie was once locked in the trunk of a car and driven to a field. The worst crimes in “Night Boat to Tangier” are less picturesque. Maurice’s ex-wife, Cynthia, used drugs while their daughter was in the womb. Maurice was right there beside her.
That daughter — her name is Dilly — might turn up at the port at Algeciras. She hasn’t seen her father in three years. But she might not.
Maurice and Charlie are in the ferry terminal’s bar and they’re drinking brandies. They’re still talking. They’re still hopeless and swimming in regret. But as Maurice’s ex-wife says at another point in the novel, “They do fill a room, though, don’t they?”