Books on Tap met (in person!) at Champion Brewing Company on Thursday, August 5 to discuss Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry.
The two main characters, Charlie and Maurice, partners in crime, have lived lives of violence, licentiousness, addiction, theft, and threat. They lived lives in which their “job” became their lifestyle, as often happens when the “job” exists in a dark underbelly of a world — when you turn to the illicit, it becomes harder and harder to separate work from play. This character-plot trope was our first source of discussion: many members didn’t like the characters themselves, or even the experience of reading, but once the book was finished, liked it more. The experience of reflecting on the book was, for many, more enjoyable than the book itself. This was also because of the dialogue, which, while humorous and broodingly dark, was colloquial (heavily Irish-dialect), and may have required a dictionary. Some readers absolutely loved the book, even comparing it to Hemingway, with its spare writing and its quietly gripping premise. We also compared this novel to Samuel Beckett, especially “Waiting for Godot.”
We discussed how the process of aging looked in this book, for Maurice and Charlie, but also for Dilly, the estranged daughter. Maurice and Charlie, two “aging Irishmen,” spend the present-tense portion of the novel sitting in a ferry terminal, waiting and hoping to see Dilly. The passiveness of simply waiting and hoping, the harsh reality of all they went through as criminals, and the prevalence of memory within the narrative, all combine to create a worn-weathered feeling for these two men. One member recalled questioning with a laugh, “since when is 50 old?!” and other members chimed in that the characters felt “spent”…much older than their chronological age. The interesting dynamic of premature aging had other members wondering what a sequel could look like for these two characters. What do you do when you’re fifty years old and you’ve already lived through enough hardship and danger for multiple lifetimes?
As for Dilly, some exclaimed she was just a baby in all of this, while others argued she was a legal adult and a grown woman. She was on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood, a precarious age that can be interpreted in various ways, especially when the character has lived a life like Dilly’s: a complicated trajectory of danger and abandonment, as well as trauma and strength. This led us to discuss when we first really felt like adults. Pivotal moments such as escaping a childhood hometown, getting married, and having a baby were all cited as moments that kickstarted a transition into adulthood for us.
Along with aging came the concept of time. The entire novel takes place within 24 hours — a detail most of our readers completely missed. The immersive experiences of the memories had us feeling like we were occupying much more time than a single day. But one sharp reader noticed a line of dialogue, first appearing at the beginning of the novel, and then once more at the end, which served to sandwich the entire story: “would you say there’s any end in sight?” Barry surely picked this line intentionally, and while we didn’t get to discuss the potential significance of this line, I’d love to know: what do you think? Even if you haven’t read the book, what does it say to you about time and aging? Can you imagine being a drug dealer/smuggler, trying to find your own way in the world, or to make sense of it all?
In the end, some found the trajectory a little depressing, and in a way, depressing for them as readers. It was almost like Barry was putting us through our own hardship in creating characters that were not inherently likable, that we then had to watch suffer — all without the balmy sense of goodness that comes with feeling sympathy for another person. Yet, another way of looking at these two, was through a lens not of sympathy, but of understanding, and empathy. While the novel is entertaining and brisk, it is also mournful, almost completely devoted to all that has been lost: love, youth, family. It is difficult to remain completely disconnected from a feeling so universal.
September 2: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
October 7: Still Life by Louise Penny
November 4: Feed by M.T. Anderson
December 2: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng