Katy Simpson Smith, review of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, in New York Times (5 Feb. 2017)

[Details: Katy Simpson Smith, ‘A Lover and a Fighter’, review of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, in New York Times (5 Feb. 2017, Book Reviews [BR24]; see internet version as ‘A Dreamlike Western With a Different Kind of Hero’, 3 Feb. 2017 - online; accessed 06.06.2017.]

Thomas McNulty is an orphan, a refugee from Ireland’s Great Famine, a crack shot, a cross-dresser and a halfhearted soldier, but mostly he’s in love with a young man who, on their harrowing and tender adventures across the breadth of mid-19th-century America, becomes so starved “you coulda used John Cole for a pencil if you coulda threaded some lead through him.”

“Days Without End” - the Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s seventh novel, and the fourth to feature a member of the McNulty clan - is a haunting archaeology of youth, when “time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending.” To the fatalism and carnage of classic westerns, Barry introduces a narrator who speaks with an intoxicating blend of wit and wide-eyed awe, his unsettlingly lovely prose unspooling with an immigrant’s peculiar lilt and a proud boy’s humor. But in this country’s adolescence he also finds our essential human paradox, our heartbreak: that love and fear are equally ineradicable.

Thomas first stumbles across John Cole beneath a hedge in Missouri, sometime around 1849, when the teenagers are just “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.” Their first employment as dolled-up saloon dancers gives Thomas a taste for ladies’ accouterments [sic], but war, with its disregard for finery or flesh, keeps intervening. The friends join a platoon charged with clearing the West for whites and encounter Caught-His-Horse-First, a chief of the Oglala Sioux who clasps the United States Army in the two-step of generosity and vengeance that will bloody the plains for generations, its “tremendous grasses folding, unfolding, showing their dark underbellies, hiding them, showing.” In an interlude of peace, Thomas and John Cole hie to the Midwest with the chief’s niece, Winona, a placid child and ward of the Army, and Thomas once more dons “the stays and the corset and the bosom holder and the padded arse and the cotton packages for breasts” for nightly performances on behalf of the enraptured local miners. The Civil War interrupts this idyll, and the seesaw of petticoated peace and trousered violence continues its rhythmic tilting.

The makeshift family develops sweetly, while the scenes of battle sear. Thomas claims “there is a seam in men called justice that nothing burns off complete” - moments before an Army sharpshooter kills the daughter of a retreating Sioux. Justice is a troubled concept here: Women and children are never spared, Irish-born Yankees bayonet Irish-born Rebels, and friendship is no defense against murder. Nor does our guide through this gory fantasia have clean hands. If Thomas’s adoption of Winona, another chess piece in the prairie wars, is an attempt to shore up human decency, we learn too little about her own cultural cleavage. That two strange white men can so neatly become her parents belies the trauma of Indian dislocation. Barry draws parallels between the Irish and the American Indians - pushed out, despised, dispossessed - but he leaves Winona untethered from her identity as a Sioux. A few days after being taken from her people a second time, we find her “loosening too, and laughing now.”

It may seem incongruous to call a novel as violent as “Days Without End” dreamlike, but Barry’s narrator is a gentle witness to brutality: neither reluctant nor rabid, but a semi-willing instrument - which is to say, like most of those who participate in war. In this brief business of existence, he explains, “we have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards.” Atrocities come and go, love flourishes where it can, and justice turns out to be fickle, for the wicked and the innocent are punished alike. With uncommon delicacy, Barry reminds us that individual humans buzz about the land like mosquitoes: causing mischief, dying, being born, forgetting. Our recompense comes in those private moments when “love laughs at history a little.”

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