Barry, Sebastian. Days Without End. Penguin, New York, 2016. F; 1/18.
I’ve hit a vein of Irish writers lately, and I’m sure that country can claim literary gold out of proportion to is population: Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, Goldsmith, Swift, others. This writer is no exception, this is a tremendous story of involuntary expatriate Irishmen struggling in 19th-century North America. No terrible event or detail is spared.
Thomas McNulty meets John Cole as starving teenage boys barely surviving in an American frontier town. They are taken in by a saloon owner and dressed as girls, to dance with the miner customers, and make a great success of that without quite, apparently, having to have sex with anybody.
The boys outgrow the girly act and enlist in the American army and endure hardship (“the piss froze as it left our peckers and woe betide the man with an obstruction or hesitation to their shit because soon they had a brown icicle on their arse”) but this is nothing compared to the horror of an attack that their regiment visits on a native Indian village near the California town were they settle. Women, little boys, and babies are cut to death by soldiers on horseback indiscriminately with the braves, and Barry doesn’t flinch at describing the mad exultation of the slaughter along with the remorse of the aftermath. Persisting conflict with the Indians floods back and forth through the rest of the story.
Real war action in the Civil War and the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Andersonville flies with almost unbearable emotion: paralyzing vomiting fear among new recruits just before battle, Nazi-like tramping on prisoners’ humanity.
Thomas, later Thomasina, and handsome John Cole become a gay couple early, simply stated by the author. But there’s a bisexuality in Thomas’s strong and honourable work as a soldier, alongside his cross-dressing and eventually marrying John and being maternal toward their adopted native Indian daughter Winona. Gender coexistence is just a fact in their lives.
I sometimes have trouble with homosexuality and endurance and violence used, like illness and other celebrated causes, to perk up an otherwise dull fictional story, or themselves being the entire and self-righteous point of the story. But there’s absolutely none of that here. A soldier’s description of sailing from Ireland to New York in steerage, recognizing when the nailed-down hatch covers are removed who the corpses floating in the bilge water are, made me stop and take a deep breath. Thomas when he landed in Canada went to the “fever sheds” with hundreds of other immigrants who were sick. Most of them, including children, died. There was a second Indian slaughter by the cavalry, hideously ambiguous in its motivation by the commanding officer whose daughter and wife had been killed by the Indians. Again the same level of horror made real without affectation: “The troopers came back up the hill lathered in blood and gore. Spattered with tendrils of veins. Happy as demons in the commission of demons work. Exultant and shoving to each other. Drenched in a slaughterhouse of glory.” Thomas’s and John’s homosexuality is just by the way.
Thomas as first-person narrator speaks lower-class Irish and this device, in other fiction sounding stupidly affected, was fine with me here it was so appropriate and accurate. He simply tells it like it is: “there is that great wailing and distress and then the pacifying waters close over everything, old Father Time washes his hands. On he plods to the next place.” His justifiably deadpan cynicism sits comfortably beside his human sympathy: “There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just the fact… we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster.” But Thomas has a simple accurate understanding of “stories that tell another story just the whole while they are being told.”
Another story. Our author is no Gary Baldwin, whose Yiddish for Pirates is a similarly wide-ranging epic but has a very different light-hearted tone. This is serious at times horrifying but humanely uplifting stuff, demanding and seizing attention and not letting go.