In Kevin Barry’s newly Booker-longlisted Night Boat to Tangier (pub. Canongate), ageing Irish gangsters Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond have travelled to Spain to search for Maurice’s missing 23-year-old daughter Dilly. Towards the start of the novel, the pair corner a young Englishman named Benny, who looks like he belongs to the kind of crowd they imagine Dilly has fallen in with. They question him over whether he might have seen her:
Benjamin? Maurice says. We’re not saying ye all know each other or anything, like. Sure there could be half a million of ye sweet children in Spain. The way things are going.
Charlie whispers –
Because ye’d have the weather for it.
Maurice whispers –
Ye’d be sleeping out on the beaches.
Like the lords of nature, Charlie says.
Under the starry skies, Maurice says.
Charlie stands, gently awed, and proclaims –
‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ Whose line was that, Maurice?
I believe it was the Bard, Charlie. Or it might have been Little Stevie Wonder.
A genius. Little Stevie.
The dialogue rolls on like this, trapping the reader in the conversation as surely as Benny himself is trapped in the encounter. This is not a situation with any rules that Benny can grasp, and the sense of uncertainty builds: will the next line be friendly or lethal? It’s electrifying to read.