- - Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Two older gentlemen — and I use the word “gentlemen” advisedly — are sitting on a wooden bench in the ferry terminal at Algeciras, Spain watching as the boats that run between Tangier and Morocco dock and depart. The men, who have been friends — and, literally, partners in crime — for decades are Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond. They sit side by side as they wait, hoping to see and talk with Dilly Hearne, Maurice’s daughter from whom he’s been estranged for three years.

Now 23, she is one of the hundreds of young people who roam around Europe in something like packs, often claiming to believe in Rastafarianism, having only their unconventional dress, dreadlocks and their fondness for dogs in common.

“In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.” That Frederic Garcia Lorca quote, the epigraph, sets the book’s tone.

Dilly could be arriving or departing; they don’t know. They, her father and her honorary uncle, just want to see her, make sure she’s okay, and ask why she won’t stay in touch. Lots of luck, as parents of wayward youth who have been or still are “in the wind,” know only too well.

“And if the men are to see Dilly again,” Mr. Barry writes, “they know that it depends also on fate’s arrangements, and on the drifting insistencies of youth.”



So as they sit and wait, their conversation reveals their common history, families, sex lives, loves gained and lost, all the things sad people talk about when forced to just sit and wait.

Both men been very successful in business, the business of smuggling drugs, and have enough put away to live on, even if it’s a life and lifestyle greatly reduced.

A few years back, in an attempt to “go straight,” Maurice and Cynthia (Dilly’s mother and Maurice’s ex-wife) invested a small fortune, 485,000 pounds, in a beautiful mountainside plot of land where he started to build houses — but immediately ran into what sounds like an “only in Ireland” problem.

At the bottom of the plot there’s a conspicuous mound. Some of the neighbors think it was once a “fairy fort,” and an ancient superstition dictates that if it’s disturbed, bad luck will follow.

According to a 2017 article in The Irish Times: “As the 1937-39 Schools’ Collection of the National Folklore Archives makes abundantly clear every community in Ireland believed until recently in its local spirits, who lived in the surrounding bushes, banks and, in particular, the fairy forts.

“After eons (potentially millennia) of living side-by-side with these spirits, aka the Little People, Gentry, the Good People or Síoga, and coping with their divilish interferences in our lives and landscapes we have now cast them aside over the course of a few paltry decades.”

But not in Charlie’s case. On the first day of construction, a strong young laborer broke his leg, on the second, “… some [fricking] eejit with a kango hammer nearly took the marriage prospects off himself,” and three days later another worker had “a mini stoke while mixing bags of sand and gravel.” So much for the project.

Maurice (aided by Charlie) consoled himself with whiskey and heroin. Now, years later, all they both want is to see Dilly again and make sure she’s alright.

There was a tiny lake island that sat there oddly, as though unsure of its purpose in the greater scheme. Above the Maumturks were the most sober mountains. The Maumturks had slow, blank, unobliging faces. Maurice and Cynthia loved each other out there.

That fairly typical passage occurs on page 73, by which time the reader is, or should be, attuned to the arrangement and tone of the author’s prose style. It’s very Irish, by which I mean lyrical, even lilting, with certain passages reading much like poetry, and it moves the story along at a fast clip.

Given that this fictional work by an Irishman features two men on a bench, sitting and waiting for someone to appear, comparisons to Samuel Beckett’s great play “Waiting for Godot” are inevitable, but off the mark. The play closes with no resolution, whereas in this book … But I won’t do that as it would spoil things for the reader. 

The pleasure to be found in this relatively short book is in the telling, plus the author’s clear evocative prose that often deploys lines and paragraphs that suggest music — but it’s not the speedy pace of step dancing. Rather it is the sad, slow, and beautiful music of time. But there are similarities. The book’s message is not existential; instead it is fundamentally human, and the reader is left with a feeling of hope, not hopelessness.  

• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

• • •

NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER

By Kevin Barry

Doubleday, $25.95, 255 pages

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