Barry’s tale of visceral murder and intimate love

by John Boland

Fiction: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry. Faber & Faber, hdbk, 272 pages, €23.99

Sebastian Barry’s engrossing American Civil War novel is so well paced that readers may defer any quibbles about the brutality of the violence until the very end.

Sebastian Barry, that scrupulous chronicler of lost Irish lives, has now turned his attention to the Civil War – though not, as you might expect, the dreadful blood-letting that began here in 1922 but the even more dreadful American one six decades earlier.

So what’s the new novel’s Sligo-born protagonist Thomas McNulty doing there? Perhaps he’s an ancestor of the author because, as every loyal reader knows, Barry has drawn on the lives of family members for most of his novels and some of his plays, too – most notably The Steward of Christendom.

Indeed, in his last book, the 2014 novel The Temporary Gentleman, there was even an allusion to the author’s mother, actress Joan O’Hara, though the main character was based on his maternal grandfather Jack O’Hara, named in the book as Jack McNulty, a likeable but feckless adventurer who causes mayhem in the lives of those closest to him.

There are also references in that book to Jack’s brother Eneas, who had escaped the country when a vengeful IRA put his life in peril and who was the central figure in Barry’s 1998 novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty. And now in this new novel we presumably are dealing with the whereabouts of one of Eneas’s ancestors.

Thomas McNulty is the book’s narrator and when we first encounter him he’s a teenager in the Missouri of the 1850s. It’s a long way from Sligo, where he was born and from which he has fled to America after the Famine caused the deaths of his mother and sister.

So he joins the US army and befriends the similarly adolescent John Cole, who becomes the love of his life as they get embroiled both in the military mission to “pacify the country” (mainly by killing Native Americans) and in the Civil War against the rebellious south.

There are two stories going on here, one of general murderousness and the other of intimate love, though the latter is much less persuasive. Thomas tells us that “John Cole was my love, all my love” and that he was “the best-looking man in Christendom”, while Cole himself “says he loves me more than any man since the apes roamed”, but we get little sense of this love beyond such occasional declarations.

And we get no sense at all of how two gay young men who share a bed are able to conduct their clandestine relationship in a 19th-century military environment that would have reacted with punitive, probably lethal, disgust if the true facts of their friendship were discovered.

But the author doesn’t bother pondering, or even considering, the taboo nature of what Thomas is telling us, instead featuring scenes in which, for the pleasure of sex-starved miners, the boys dress up as girls at saloon dances and stage shows (“our love in plain sight”) as if it were all just high jinks.

The novel is much more impressive, and indeed harrowing, when depicting the slaughter that’s perpetrated by the army, both against the Indians and the Confederate rebels. Here Thomas, John and their fellow soldiers become nothing more than killing machines, giving little thought to their butchery even as they follow their vengeful major’s instruction to “leave nothing alive” – including helpless Indian women and children.

There’s a power to these murderous scenes that’s as terrifying as it’s sickening, but there are too many of them – 10 by my count, and losing visceral impact as they relentlessly progress. And as if recognising this, the author has Thomas reflecting towards the end that “killing hurts the heart and soils the soul”, an insight that comes too late to be convincing.

And he reflects also on “so many Irish boys doing this work” centuries after Cromwell had declared of their own home country that “he would leave nothing alive” there. But all he can muster is a sardonic “Ain’t that the way of the world?”

Yet the author is at pains to persuade us that Thomas is not just a heartless character who’s “able to see slaughter without flinching”. He rescues a young Sioux girl, Winona, from certain death by one of his fellow soldiers, and by killing the soldier puts his own life at risk – causing him and John to flee to Tennessee with Winona, treating her lovingly as a surrogate daughter.

Yet despite the book’s optimistic, almost sentimental, close it’s the brutality that remains with the reader. “Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity”, Thomas warns us near the outset, and throughout the novel he displays his nihilism with such shrugging statements as “Thousands die everywhere always. The world don’t care much”, and more cosmically “We are all just customers of the same three-card trickster”.

But then we’re asked to consider his love for John Cole and for Winona. So are we meant to feel empathy for this man? It’s hard to tell, but probably yes, though little evidence is forthcoming as to why we should.

Indeed, it’s unclear what Barry is trying to do here, beyond telling us that war is hell and does hellish things both to its perpetrators and its victims. And readers may be puzzled by a narrative style which veers from the ungrammatical vernacular (“Mr McSweney were a black man”; “We was not paid”) to the self-consciously poetic – a bar-owning benefactor has “skin made of the aftermath of smiles” and is “as dapper as a mackerel”.

But if the book doesn’t have the lacerating poignancy of the same author’s The Secret Scripture (2008) or the confident sweep of On Canaan’s Side (2011), which was also set in the United States, it’s so well paced and its storyline so engrossing that many readers may defer their quibbles until the very end.

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