Sebastian Barrys commitment to telling the stories of two Irish families, the Dunnes and the McNultys, over several novels and multiple time frames and locations, has led to one of the most compelling, bravura and heart-wrenching fictional projects of recent memory. Its gaps and fissures, its silences, its elaboration of attachment, separation and loss amount to a profound meditation on the nature of national identity, enforced emigration and the dispersal of a people into lands frequently inhospitable and alienating, there to forge a new life.
Days Without End, a fever dream of a novel that has much in common, particularly in terms of style, with Barrys prize-winning The Secret Scripture, presents us with Thomas McNulty, who has crossed the Atlantic to rebuild his life. The traumatic chaos of what he has left behind in Sligo – his family dead from famine, his country starved in her stocking feet. And she had no stockings – is more than matched by the horrors that he encounters in a US in the grip of self-creation, its expansionist violence underwritten by its adherence to the notion of manifest destiny.
It is the 1850s, and Thomas has arrived in Missouri by way of Quebec, a journey that is revealed only in snippets that lightly inflect the novel. His brief explanation of the aptitude he and those like him show for soldiery – How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with – is later amplified by the nightmarish tale he hears from a fellow Irishman whose passage to the New World ends with corpses floating in the bilges, immured and abandoned. Thats why no one will talk, reflects Thomas, feeling that what has happened is simply not accounted as a subject. Thats because we were thought worthless. Nothing people. I guess thats what it was. That thinking just burns through your brain for a while. Nothing but scum.
In the US, Thomas is many things, as Barrys mobile, ambiguous characters frequently are. At the beginning, having teamed up with a boy named John Cole, he is a dancer, rigged out in womens clothing to entertain miners starved of female company; a so-called prairie fairy. But when the bloom of youth departs the pair at 17, they volunteer for the US Army and join the Oregon trail to California – weeks and weeks of riding and then turn left at some place I forget – to undertake a different kind of service. We knew in our hearts our work was to be Indians, recalls Thomas; those who now regard themselves as the rightful occupants of the south-west want rid of them, at a price of two dollars a scalp.
A brutal raid on an Indian settlement follows, its description made remarkable by Barrys trademark blend of forceful clarity and otherworldliness, his ability to scent the mundane in the apocalyptic and vice versa. In a passage that calls to mind one of The Secret Scriptures most vivid and defining scenes – that of an orphanage on fire – the transformative effect of such destruction on its participants is memorably captured: More sparks flew up, it was a complete vision of worlds end and death, in those moments I could think no more, my head bloodless, empty, racketing, astonished … We were dislocated, we were not there, now we were ghosts. The earlier book also resurfaces via the image of rats, here pictured as swarming emblems of the will to survive, dozens of the critters swimming for their lives.
But Barrys business extends beyond intense and visceral description, though that persists through a narrative that eventually encompasses the American civil war as well as increasingly complex interactions with indigenous communities. It also captures the development of Thomas and Johns relationship, the mens sexual attraction to one another announced early in the novel by the simple, paragraph-long sentence: And then we quietly fucked and then we slept. What makes this strand of storyline unexpected is that it ushers in an exploration of gender fluidity and a redefinition of family that seems to scream anachronism but is nonetheless convincing.
That Thomas – or, albeit briefly and in clandestine fashion, Thomasina – dons a frock and marries John would test a literal reading; that they also act as parents to a Sioux child, Winona, who has been wrested from her family in an altogether more realistic plot development, is equally hard to credit. But it is of a piece with Barrys abiding preoccupation – near obsession – throughout the McNulty sequence with rupture and remaking. It is as if he is saying: if you can believe in a country laid waste for the want of its most basic crop, or a continent of persons displaced by frontier-lust, then why wouldnt you believe this?
The willingness to suspend disbelief is everywhere under pressure, and juxtaposed with Barrys determination to face history. A group of Oglala Sioux stalk Thomass company for miles across the Missouri Breaks, terrifying them and then shocking them with a sudden display of compassionate hospitality; but a brief period of co‑existence yields to more bloodshed, to raped women and children snatched or left dead. In the years immediately before the civil war, America is shown as a country defined by lawlessness, ambition and plasticity; afterwards, it seems more hopelessly fractured, haunted by what has befallen it. During one of the many journeys the characters make across state lines, Thomas, John and Winona meet a Shawnee Indian, impoverished and fishing for mussels. He is unable to speak to Winona because they dont share a common language; they are both not where they are supposed to be. Thomas summarises the mournful occasion accurately: Just an old widower Indian man by a river whose name we didnt know.
The image of a country populated by spectral figures, devastated by conflicts that leave men making the noises of ill-butchered cattle, their limbs hanging by a thread, their bodies emaciated and withered, is in sharp contrast with the landscape that inspires awe in both Thomas and Barry, and which seems to demand an equal grandeur in the observer: A vicious ruined class of man could cry at such scenes because it seems to tell him that his life is not approved.
Numerous other questions of identity flit through the novel. The emigrant Thomas rarely sounds exactly Irish, though the odd word bubbles up: hames, as in making a hames, or a mess, of something, or frocken, a small berry found on Irish mountainsides, gathered up and sold for dye. He is ambivalent about his compatriots, at the least, but his ambivalence itself centres on duality: Dont tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity. He may be an angel in the clothes of a devil or a devil in the clothes of an angel but either way youre talking to two when you talk to one Irishman.
Thomass journey towards womanhood is equally alive to the idea of multitude, as what could be seen as his femininity – largely his desire to dress as a woman and his maternal feelings for Winona – is set apart from his stereotypically masculine capacity for war, in part derived from his sense of loyalty to his fellow soldiers. His striking description of a brutal reprisal against an Indian incursion presents an image of entrancement, of near dissociation: We work in our lather of strange sorrow, but utterly revengeful, fiercely so, soldiers of intentful termination, of total annihilation.
Days Without End is a work of staggering openness; its startlingly beautiful sentences are so capacious that they are hard to leave behind, its narrative so propulsive that you must move on. In its pages, Barry conjures a world in miniature, inward, quiet, sacred; and a world of spaces and borders so distant they can barely be imagined. Taken as a whole, his McNulty adventure is experimental, self-renewing, breathtakingly exciting. It is probably not ended yet.