Monday, April 3, 2017

Sebastian Barry's "Days Without End": Book Review

Sebastian Barry, in six previous novels (as well as his play The Stewart of Christendom) takes inspiration from his family members, past and present. More than one Barry narrative features the McNulty clan from the Irish port of Sligo. Days Without End sidles back before The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and A Long, Long Way. Barry credits not only the rumor of a great-great uncle "in the Indian Wars" but he dedicates this latest installment to his son Toby, who has come out as gay.

Whereas those two earlier McNulty fictions began as a Great War shattered peace, this densely allusive, self-aware new narrative begins with the Famine, sending in 1847 thirteen-year-old Tommy McNulty off to Canada on a "fever ship," and then to Missouri. In Daggsville, a town as unpromising as its moniker suggests, he meets his lover, John Cole. Fifty-odd years later, Thomas tells us of their pairing: "We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world." They dress in a "comely fashion" as dance partners to entice lovelorn miners, desperate to be fooled by feminine wiles. During Tommy's teens, this stratagem succeeds. With maturity, illusion withers. The partners join the Army. Heading west, they meet what they expect.

"To tell a story I have to trust it but I can issue a warning like a ticket master issuing a ticket for a western-bound train that will be obliged to go through wilderness, Indians, outlaws, and storms." Thomas's adventures turn bleak in Northern California. Summoned against the Yuroks, soldiers massacre women and children and their "braves." Troops are fooled by darkness, driven by frenzy.

The victors bury corpses. Enlisted men fill in the pits with dirt "like we were putting pastry tops on two enormous pies." Arresting phrases and novel images sharpen this blunt coming-of-age story. Barry balances beauty with horror.  Bloody duties order Thomas and John back and forth across the expanding 1850s frontier. "We wanted the enemy stilled and destroyed, so that we could live ourselves." Thomas recites the details of how these men (un-)settled themselves, unflinchingly. "A man's memory might have only a hundred days in it; he has lived thousands." Death watches it all.

Such a conflict wearies them. Their sergeant ages. Thomas reflects: "Like we got ten faces in our lives and we wear them one by one." For a while, these two young men return to their theatrical niche. In Grand Rapids they court gypsum miners. "We have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards." For a while, this satisfies the couple. "Out on stage we hear the first skits going over the footlights like crates of delicious apples. Thomas gets to wear a dress and don female frippery, and does so away from the limelight. But a greater campaign empties Michigan mines of men. John and Thomas join their old sergeant, who recruits both into a Massachusetts Irish regiment.

Marched into Northern Virginia, Union ranks await battle: "Fear like a bear in the cave of banter." After this slaughter, Thomas notices that land wrest back its dominion. "The whippoorwill will call forever over these snowy meadows. But the tents are temporary." That weather worsens along with the plight of the regiment hacking its way into Tennessee. The Deep South holds a fate for the "Feds" which many novelists have evoked. Sebastian Barry, as these excerpts attest, strives to capture the Joycean tone of his storyteller, infused with Barry's small slips of verse within his very stylized prose.

A longtime fellow fighter muses of the typical Irishman in these ranks: "the trouble with him is he thinks when he is bid to do a thing." Independence may be idealized by patriots, but not among the military. "That ain't a good trait in a soldier." Barry channels through Thomas a liberal sympathy for those he must shoot, whether Native Americans or "yellowlegs" with strange accents in butternut rags. The latter foe shrinks as thin as wraiths. Rebels weaken on "fingers" of cornbread, filthy water.

The latter part of this chronicle continues in the pattern of the Western first half. As with another saga which took up the adventures of the Irish during this era, the film Gangs of New York, the scope of Barry's project strains to encompass both the tumult of the decades before the Civil War as well as the conflagrations in the days of Lincoln, Grant, and Lee. While Barry avoids repetition, such elaboration of suffering weighs down Days Without End to resemble its eternal title. Thomas repeats the moral of all this mess. "Everything bad gets shot at in America, says John Cole, and everything good too."

The soldiers respect justice despite slaughter. Their "cold brutal war" on the plains and in the hollows reveals how an armed man keeps "a queer spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that's just a fact." Thomas as he retraces his itinerary into "o'erwhelming country" to rescue Winona, a Sioux girl he had adopted fifteen years earlier (it's a winding subplot), reflects on parallels between the persecuted in his homeland and the Irishman's fate as another empire's cannon fodder and shock troops. "Now we make them this American paradise. Guess it were strange so many Irish boys doing this work." In Indian Territory Thomas peers at displaced natives. "Every face before us looks like it were slapped."

Through many plot complications, Thomas tries to sustain his hard-won family, with one old black veteran, Winona, and himself, part of "a white couple." He tries to settle down. "I hitch up my skirts good as any country girl and I work beside the men. Yet, no retreat from guns and violence lasts long in a violent depiction of more than one American lust. "Flowers draw bees and gold draws thieves."

As Days Without End rambles on, its body count rises. Old haunts spark new hatreds. Reconstruction and the clearance of natives from the supposedly tamed frontier wear down resistance against this relentless Union. "We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain't." Facing his latest in a series of forced emigrations, Thomas reasons: "The ones that don't try to rob me will feed me. That's how it is in America." Dramatizing an omnipresent imperial force, this picaresque yarn speaks for its perpetrators and victims, ordinary men, women, and children. Even if Thomas's yarn relies more than once as a Western tall tale may, on sudden coincidence and daring rescues in the nick of time: "He just appeared like an angel, I says." So does Thomas, but readers of his account may forgive him for these interventions. After all, Thomas won his place on stage and behind a skirt, fooling in turn many.
(PopMatters 3-27-17)

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