Days Without End

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The Irish writer Sebastian Barry gets deep into America’s dark, savage history in DAYS WITHOUT END, his remarkable seventh novel (which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize). Published by Viking, the novel’s hero and narrator is Thomas McNulty, a kid whose parents died in Ireland during the potato famine, forcing him to make his own way in the world. After stowing away on a passenger ship, he makes his way in 1851 via Canada to Missouri where, at seventeen, he enlists in the U.S. army as a way out of vagabondage. He and his best friend, 16-year -old John Cole, then take part in the Indian Wars, the slaughter of the nation’s indigenous people.

Just before they became soldiers, Tom and John worked in a tent-city saloon, dressed up as women, dancing with the local farmers and miners for fifty cents a night and all they could drink. “Every night for two years we danced with them, there was never a moment of unwelcome movements,” Tom relates. “They was the gentlemen of the frontier, in that saloon.”

All gentility and civility disappeared when they became soldiers and began to gun down Indians–-and buffalo--on behalf of California’s townspeople, who wanted the state to be “cleared.” In one instance, they attacked an Indian village, with bayonets affixed to their muskets. “We worked back and forth through the milling bodies and tried to kill everything that moved in the murk...I stabbed and I stabbed. I saw John Cole stabbing. I heard him grunting and cursing. We wanted the enemy stilled and destroyed so that we could live ourselves,” says Tom.

Among the dead were dozens of squaws and babies.

From the gold rush to the plains wars to the civil war, Tom and John continue to do the army’s dirty work, becoming hard and ruthless in the process. But they never lose their humanity, which is best represented by their love for each other. It’s a love they must hide from the world, but it never wavers or dies, not even when they are captured by the Confederate army and sent to the infamous Andersonville prison, where starvation and disease kill thousands.

Nor does Tom lose his feminine side, his love of dressing up as a woman. “I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man, though I were a fighting man most of my days,” he confides.

With its transvestite hero–-think Huck Finn in drag–-DAYS WITHOUT END is an audacious and original novel which works on various levels: history, adventure, expose, love story (there is a subplot involving Tom and John’s deep attachment to Winona, a young Indian girl). What also stands out is the author’s use of language, his command of American vernacular–-and his commendable story-telling gifts.