Kevin Barry’s latest novel flits between the seamier side of Spain and his old haunts on Leeside, writes.
FREQUENTING the less salubrious drinking establishments of Cork, doing the dawn shift on a news desk or loitering in a seedy, out-of-season ferry building.
None of these might be considered research in the classical sense, but nothing is wasted material to a good writer, and Kevin Barry is one of the best. The essence of humanity and its many facets is buried deep in his bones, ready to be unearthed and exhibited in signature Barry style.
The action in his eagerly anticipated third novel Night Boat to Tangier, flits between Spain, Cork, Connemara and London, all previous stops in the Barry travelogue.
The book centres on Maurice and Charlie, two fading Cork gangsters, waiting it out, Beckett-style, in the Spanish port of Algeciras. Barry describes it as a “weird little poetical gangster story”.
It’s funny, I never really tend to research books as such. The best research is stuff you don’t know you’re doing. At the time, you don’t know that you’re researching… just sitting around Cork in the ’80s and ’90s, all that texture is naturally seeping into you, I suppose.
The Limerick native was well-placed to write about southern Spain, having enjoyed many sojourns there over the last two decades. Unlike Maurice and Charlie, however, it was the light rather than the darkness that drew him there.
“I think the first year I went to Spain was in 1999, I was still based in Cork. Do you know that way in Cork, in January or February, the cloud seems to sit down on the city and everything closes in and you go, ‘I need to get out of the cave’. I’ve gone most winters for about the last 20 years now. I always loved the place. It’s very enlivening to get some light and blue sky into you.”
Barry also found it a conducive environment to work in and it was there that he really apprenticed at his craft, resulting in the electrifying debut collection of short stories, There are Little Kingdoms.
“It was very useful not to speak Spanish because I wouldn’t be talking to anyone. It would just be me for a few weeks or months. Olivia [his wife] would come and visit now and again but I would be mostly on my own. I remember very intense times trying to make short stories and stuff work out down there.”
Night Boat to Tangier switches back and forth between the 1990s and Noughties, with Maurice reflecting on the pair’s adventures as small-time dope dealers turned smugglers who end up swimming with plenty of sharks. If Barry doesn’t do research, where does his convincing portrayal of drug smugglers come from?
“A guard wouldn’t ask me that,” he laughs. But, as it turns out, he did have some previous with law enforcement that came in useful.
I remember back in the 90s when I used to do shifts on The Echo, I’d be in at seven every morning, and my first job would be to ring every garda station in Co Cork…. ‘Anything happen last night, lads?’. There could be 52 people dead in a riot in Midleton and they wouldn’t tell you unless you asked them.
“So often in the 90s, you’d get ‘there was a boat last night, they took 200 tons of hash off it’. There was a big trade up and down the coast. It’s weird, that’s kind of gone because they grow it here now in polytunnels or whatever.”
As Maurice and Charlie sit and reminisce, it is clear their glory days as such are far behind them. They are ageing, damaged by their own drug use and violence, struggling in a business, and a world, that is changing. There is an elegiac quality to the book and one senses that it is maybe mirrored in Barry’s own experience of Cork in the 90s; were they his halcyon days?
“A bit, yeah, and even earlier… the 80s in Limerick as well. I get weirdly nostalgic now about those old times. I was in Cork not that long ago, and I found myself taking a photograph of the Glanmire Road… it’s weird,” he laughs.
“It was a slightly wilder place back then. I don’t think that is just a nostalgia for youth surfacing in me. I think a lot of it is that young wans and young fellas back then, they had more time and space to get into a bit of trouble then they do now. God help us, they have to be so focused on colleges and getting on the housing ladders and all that bollocks.
“When I was in my 20s, it was presumed you would be on the dole for a few years, hanging around, doing bits and bobs and going to England for a while. We were lucky in a way.”
Night Train to Tangier is a love story in more ways than one, and there is a gentler, more affectionate tone to this book than previous work. Barry admits he fell a little in love with Maurice and Charlie while writing it.
“I got more fond of them as I was going on through it even though they are kind of monstrous characters. There’s a more tender note in this than in City of Bohane, which is most similar in terms of being a gangster story. When you start out writing fiction, the impulse is, right I’m going to give it a kick in the bollocks, I’ll shake it all up.
“I suppose it’s natural as a writer as you get older, you get a little bit kinder. It was kind of nice to find that note coming into it because it humanises the characters.”
Ageing and death are strong undercurrents in the book, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Barry is about to celebrate a significant birthday.
“I usually happily ignore birthdays but I’m 50 in a couple of weeks. It is definitely one where you have some kind of taking stock. I’m sure that is all feeding into the book. It is not a book I would have been able to write ten years ago. With the Hawaii 5-0, you are categorically not a young fella any more, there’s no kidding yourself.
“On an optimistic note, being 50 now isn’t like being 50 in my father’s time. When I was a kid, relations who were in their fifties were seriously old and they acted it. We’re a lucky generation in that sense. I feel like I was essentially a teenager until the age of about 42. I’m hoping I can go back next year to avoiding birthdays again next year.”
A QUESTION OF TASTE
I was in Argentina for the first time during the winter and I picked up In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. It’s unbelievably good, it’s in that zone between fiction and non-fiction that I find very interesting. In terms of stuff published recently, I really liked Nicole Flattery’s short stories, Show Them a Good Time.
The best thing I saw in a long time was A Phantom Thread with Daniel Day Lewis. I think nearly everything Paul ThomasAnderson does is a masterpiece, it was off the charts.
I try to buy new stuff but then I find myself snaking off and buying old stuff as well. I’ve kind of been in this weird early ’70s Laurel Canyon mode of singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell and stuff like that. There’s also a brilliant compilation from D1 Recordings, a techno label in Dublin, who are celebrating 25 years. It’s run by Eamonn Doyle, a photographer who I’ve done a few collaborations with and it’s serious quality.
The It Takes aVillage festival down in Trabolgan was absolutely brilliant this year. It didn’t have huge names but loads of interesting performers. I had never seen Jinx Lennon live before, he was brilliant, and David Kitt. It was a great weekend, I hope it runs and runs.
I’ve been watching Easy on Netflix. It’s an anthology series, with a different story in each one, set in Chicago, all about dating, love and sex. It’s really brilliantly written and acted, I was amazed I hadn’t heard more about it. I’m still waiting to see Deadwood, The Movie. The series is one of my all-time favourites, up there with The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men.
Barry will also be reading from his novel on the Whiddy Island ferry on July 13, as part of West Cork Literary Festival