Book review: Cross-dressers and massacres in Irish novelist’s ‘Days Without End’ – Florida Times-Union

DAYS WITHOUT END

Author: Sebastian Barry

Data: Viking, 259 pages, $26

By Michael Upchurch

For the Washington Post

Massacres and cross-dressing make a rambunctious pairing in Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End.” Set mostly on the American frontier of the 1850s and in post-Civil War Tennessee, this tall tale by the Irish novelist is alternately brutal and folksy.

Its Irish-born narrator, Thomas McNulty, is a soldier in the Indian Wars, where the plainly stated aim is to exterminate native tribes. Thomas is accompanied by John Cole, his former dance partner in a vaudeville show where, in drag, they offered lonely miners “the illusion of the gentler sex” within certain limits: “No kissing, cuddling, feeling, or fumbling.”

For 17-year-old Thomas, donning woman’s clothes becomes a way of expressing his true self. For John Cole — always referred to by his full name — it’s a job requirement he soon drops for more masculine attire. It’s the manly aspect of John Cole that captivates Thomas. The intimate bond between them goes unquestioned, although they know they need to be discreet about it.

“Days Without End,” which won the Costa Novel Award in January, comes with some background news. Barry’s son Toby, to whom the novel is dedicated, is gay, and in a letter to the Irish Times before the referendum that legalized same-sex marriage in Ireland in 2015, Barry described himself as “the more than proud father of one shining person who happens to be a member of the LGBT community… . By voting Yes I will be engaging in the simple task of honouring the majesty, radiance and promise of his human soul.”

What’s odd about “Days Without End” is that although Thomas voices his fervent devotion to John Cole, we don’t get much sense of John Cole as a character. The boys’ sexual connection is handled in a manner more perfunctory than electric (no André Aciman-style homoerotic delirium here). The couple’s adopted daughter, a 9-year-old Sioux girl rescued from a bloodbath, is bit of a cipher, too.

The book’s action, however, is gritty, gruesome and imbued with all-too-convincing realism. The filthy conditions of frontier forts, the extremes of heat and cold that the soldiers endure, the slaughter on battlefields and criminal violence on back roads during peacetime — all are delivered in graphic detail, in Thomas’s musical Irish brogue that later evolves into a less convincing American backwoods lingo.

The story spans 20 years — from the early 1850s to the early 1870s — with flashbacks to the Irish famine of the 1840s that prompted Thomas’s desperate move to Canada and, later, the United States. Thomas and John Cole fight as Union soldiers in the Civil War, during which they’re captured in battle and marched to the prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Ga. Barry makes conditions there sound both degrading and lethal.

Thomas views it all with a clear-eyed, deadpan naivete. His mind is both scattershot and vivid. He sees the Sioux as “fierce men with the bitterness of useless treaties in their bellies.” With so much bloodshed on both sides, he grows convinced there’s “no such item as a virtuous people.”

For every appalling sight that Thomas and his lover witness, there’s a grandeur to the wilderness they traverse that mesmerizes them: “The curious birds of America were calling among the trees and from the far heights dropped the myriad speckles of frost. Now and then something cracked in the forest like musket-fire. There wasn’t any

Barry’s prose can take brilliant turns without sounding implausible coming out of Thomas’s mouth. A mordant vein of comedy runs through the book as Thomas recounts his wild swings of fortune. Deadly storms, attempted robberies and financial panics — “The bottom was always falling out of something in America far as I could see” — are all part of the picture. By the novel’s end, the verdict the lovers reach on the cruelties they’ve endured and inflicted is sobering: “Everything bad gets shot at in America … and everything good too.”

There’s wisdom in Thomas’s view of his life, and a comfort to be had from his long perspective on the “days without end” of his youth. “Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending,” he reflects, “but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment.”

Barry could have done more to bring the romance at the heart of the book to life, but the “wilderness of furious death” his characters inhabit has a gut-punching credibility.

Michael Upchurch is a novelist and the former Seattle Times book critic.

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