“On the far side. What if it’s just…noise?”

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. 

Books on Tap will meet on Thursday, September 2, at 7 pm, to discuss The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Upcoming Titles: 

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

4 thoughts on ““On the far side. What if it’s just…noise?”

  1. I wasn’t able to make the meeting but for me it was a typical story about growing up poor and struggling which leads to this sort of life style of which you get caught up in. Also it has to do with the age of the characters when they began this journey. Young, fearless, can’t happen to me. You start to live the life and then all of a sudden you are in the throws of it and can’t figure out how to get out. Some people are able to get out while others are not. Why is that? What makes these characters not able to do that while others are able to get out? I totally agree with Abby’s comment at the end. I think that is why I liked the book and the characters because of the universal lose of love, youth and family. It is relatable.

    As far as the quote “is there an end in sight?” there usually is always an end in sight to a situation until you no longer have to worry about an end in sight. I just reread the beginning and end of the book where that line is used. I feel they are referring to their journey along the road of life and they still see a long road ahead. They have endured a lot on the road so far but still have the desire to keep on going.

    • Priscilla, thanks for commenting! We really appreciate you chiming in here. Great contributions about aging, lifestyle, and getting “stuck.” I agree that it is one of the most difficult questions we have to wrestle with. It sounds like you found a hopeful ending to this book. Hope to see you soon, at the next meeting!

  2. I just wanted to say that it was great to be able to have a synopsis available so I didn’t have to read the book if it wasn’t very good. I’m always curious as to what other people find interesting enough to put up for a read/discussion but often am not drawn to the particular story enough to invest the time so thank you all for doing that for me. About the comment by the author of this review of the discussion, I have to ask what you think is the difference between sympathy and empathy. My understanding is that empathy requires us to have had a similar experience as the other person whereas we can be sympathetic towards anyone just by being a concerned, caring person. Were those of you who were “understanding of the two men’s behavior” really empathetic? Yes, we all grow up and lose our youth and others we’ve cared for, but to feel empathic for these men is out of my realm of understanding unless you too have lived that lifestyle. Sympathy, sure, if they’re relatable rather than despicable but they actually sound pretty despicable. Just my opinion.

    • Hi Valerie, thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad the synopsis of the discussion was helpful and enjoyable for you. You can’t read all the books, and sometimes it’s just as good, or better, to read ABOUT books!

      I would love to hear what this month’s readers have to say about your sympathy/empathy comment, so I hope they will see this discussion and chime in. Personally, I think there are numerous definitions for the terms, but I tend to think of sympathy as feeling FOR someone (“I feel bad for you”), and empathy as feeling WITH them (“You feel bad, and I’m sharing in that with you”). But you don’t necessarily have to be living the same lifestyle to be empathetic. You can feel an emotion with another person through the practice of putting yourself in their shoes. In this case, the author has already done that work for us! I can’t speak for all of our readers because we are rarely unanimous in our thinking, but at least some of our members felt no sympathy for these men (because, as you say, there were some despicable, unlikable actions) and yet they felt empathy. Barry does a great job creating pathos in this world, so while we don’t “feel bad” for the guys, we see clearly what they’re feeling, and feel it alongside them.

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