Before it came out, I read a blurb about, “Night Boat to Tangier,” something like, “two past their prime Irish drug smugglers ponder their life and times while stuck waiting in a Spanish ferry terminal.” I was sold. Humbled gangsters? Tough guys out of their element? I’m in. I pre-ordered the book. I’d never read Kevin Barry before.
A few months later the book came. After a chapter or two, I put it down and said to myself, “this is one of those smart Irish guy books.”
Smart Irish authors are intimidating. The most obvious examples are Yeats and Joyce, but there are modern writers that I’m sure fit the bill as well (although I couldn’t tell you who they are). When they are good – like Joyce – they are more impressive than English smart guys. The Irish have a more legit heritage to draw from: the Irish language, Catholicism, a history of suffering at the hands of an overwhelming and sadistic oppressor. Smart Irish guys come off smarter in a more exotic, yet strangely more approachable way, a way that the English just aren’t privy to. Perhaps because English writers, fancy English dudes like, I don’t know, William Wordsworth, Somerset Maugham or Kingsley Amis (my history of English literature is poor – I’ve read all three of those authors but haven’t studied them or where they fit in canonically, so my examples may be wildly off base), they’re the baseline. The English have to overcome the presumption that they are snobs or inherently dickheads by virtue of being English. The English have Shakespeare and Oxford college and private clubs and were colonizers and all that nasty business, plus we are all speaking their language, so they are the default smarty pants; they’re the de-facto smart writer dudes.
So when I encounter a writer like Kevin Barry, and he’s writing about this great subject matter – I love gangsters and tough guys unreservedly – and these characters from page one are philosophizing in this beautiful lyrically poetical way and I’m in heaven. The first page. Third sentence. “Two Irishmen somber in the dank light of the terminal make gestures of long sufferance and woe–they are born to such gestures, and offer them easily.”
Anyway, the point of this blog post is…
You should read “Night Boat to Tangier.”
The Irish are cool.
Night Boat didn’t go how I thought it would. Which is what good books do. It’s got all the great things: the drugs, Spain, violence, betrayal, deadbeat European travelers, wonderful descriptions of the wild West coast of Ireland, all the stuff I came to the book for, but it didn’t end like I thought. It surprised me. The men, they inevitably drive themselves crazy; it’s what we do, isn’t it? And the Irish are smarter and more interesting than the rest of us, so they get to chronicle the crazy men the best (more on crazy women in a moment).
Except for us Americans maybe. We get some pretty great authors in there too. But even then, it’s a quantitative thing. There are so many more of us that we can’t but help produce some greats now and again.
And while I’m on the subject of Irish Literature, I should probably mention how much I enjoyed Sally Rooney’s two novels: “Normal People,” and “Conversations With Friends.” I’ve seen a lot of praise for this young Irish writer lately and it’s well deserved. I read her 2nd novel “Normal People” first and I was immediately struck by the fantastically original voice and the smoothness of her prose. I was all in by page two and despite the book going some places subject-matter-wise that I was less than excited about, I really enjoyed experiencing the situation through the eyes of both her protagonists. This difference in perspective – how we (as humans and as genders) perceive events – is a massive theme for “Normal People” and it’s very skillfully done.
Ultimately the perspective of her characters and the resolution of the events portrayed in both books left me a little saddened about the state male/female relations and more generally, mankind, but then, there’s nothing new there. Ah well. Our species marches on.