#224: A WORLD STRANGE AND LOST. Sebastian Barry’s 2016 novel Days Without End balances such disparate elements—love and violence, loyalty and terror, the billowing and gobsmacking flights of language and the earnest stare of realism—that you come away joyous and moved and simply nonplussed that he could pull the whole thing off. Two boys, the narrator Thomas McNulty, a Sligo boy who has fled the Irish famine, and John Cole, of Indian descent, meet up and, “having made our acquaintance under an anonymous hedge it seemed natural and easy to join together in the enterprise of continuing survival.” The enterprise carries them from their first employment (“Let’s call it our dancing days. Why the hell not.”), wearing dresses and dancing with miners in a town not oversupplied with women, into the army and into the horrors of the Civil War and the Indian clearances, all rendered with heightened and watchful language: “The wounded are making the noises of ill-butchered cattle. Throats have been slit but not entirely. There are gurgles and limbs held in agony and many have stomach wounds that presage Godawful death. Then the moon rises quietly and throws down her long fingers of nearly useless light.” Note the quiet that descends; note the “nearly.” There is something in Days Without End almost of fable, and much of the specific, reckoning detail of the very best realistic fiction.
The source of some of it, Barry has acknowledged, comes from when his “radiant son” Toby, aged sixteen, came out to him; looking at Toby’s relationship with his boyfriend, Barry said, “There’s an area of wonderment that I didn’t expect. They were kids but they knew something that I didn’t know.” This sense of bedazzlement anchors the romantic relationship of Thomas McNulty and John Cole; the sense of the American landscape may come from Barry having hitched around the U.S. when he was Thomas’s (or Toby’s) age. That’s as close as I can come to explaining how he strings all this together and along, how the boys’ loyalty anchors them through the roar and madness of nineteenth century America. Thomas McNulty comes out of the nullifying destruction the famine fastened on his family—the experience of being rendered down to absolutely nothing--and then seen families and towns and factions and gangs all around him doing their best to level that destruction on each other. He is the onlooker, sometimes the participant, but, thank Heavens, not the victim. Thomas McNulty and John Cole have each other’s backs, but survival, in such a world, is purely luck of the draw. Their luck stays good to the end, leaving them, and us, winded, amazed and thankful.
There are times when writers tip their hands, for good or ill. In Ian McEwan’s Saturday, I was pleased and relieved when McEwan didn’t make a snark out of the book’s narrator not realizing that his daughter didn’t write the poem she quotes at one point—which the reader recognizes as Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”—this being a moment of easy generosity in the usually dour and discomfiting world of MacEwan’s fiction. Well into Days Without End, Thomas and John Cole rescue and eventually adopt a young Lakota girl, who becomes the narrator of Barry’s 2020 sequel, A Thousand Moons. She says right off: “In early times I was Ojinjintka, which means rose. Thomas McNulty tried very hard to say my name, but he failed, and so he gave me my dead cousin’s name because it was easier in his mouth. Winona means first-born. I was not first-born.” One can hear the charges of white-man appropriation looming; but Winona, and Barry, will have none of it. She knows that Thomas and John Cole were part of the troop that massacred her family. “They both gave me the wound and healed it, which is a hard fact in its way.” She comes to live, along with her guardians, on a hardscrabble farm in Paris, Tennessee, owned by an army friend of the boys, and helped by an ex-slave sister and brother, Rosalee and Tennyson, no one of the characters quite fitting a traditional role. (Winona once, entirely in passing, calls Thomas “Mamma.”) Eventually, a Chippewa girl named Peg, is included in this makeshift family. Thomas, in his boyhood, earned his living in skirts; Winona, wearing Thomas’s trousers, meets Peg, and they too form a couple.
The theme of gender fluidity—certainly not something we associate with the America of this period—gallops all over both these books with surprise and ease, largely because none of their characters would recognize the phrase. At one point Winona is raped—it becomes the engine for much of the book’s ensuing action, in part because they have no words for the crime. The inarticulacy of the nineteenth century in these matters gives some of the raw and beautiful light that marks the book’s relationships; the characters feel what they feel without the distraction of filter or labels. A lout of a young deputy, confused by Winona wearing Thomas’s trousers, asks to kiss her: “You’re a nice soft boy.” Plot twists in both books depend on a character being misgendered. Here is this American time as we have not often seen it.
As an Indian woman, Winona has no legal rights, but she moves through a post-Civil War Tennessee that’s tagged and terrorized by old loyalties and identities, constant reiterations of the violence of her childhood. It is this flux, between safety and threat, violation and protection, that gives the story its edge and almost bewildering beauty: “That the world was strange and lost was not in argument. That there was no place to stand on the earth that was not perilous was just the news of every moment.” In A Thousand Moons, passages of affection, even ecstasy, are always near the threat of violence returning, like a match next to a gasoline leak; and characters long guilty of horrific deeds may act with unexpected justice. Speaking of the current run of Irish writers, Barry said recently, “Some of these writers are so good that they’re actually revivifying, like an elixir,” and what Barry brews up here can stand with the best of these. After one life-threatening last violent act, Winona wakes in her farm home—her last lines are “That I had souls that loved me and hearts that watched over me was a truth self-evident to hold.”—and the strange, lost world of the novel—for the moment—comes to rest.