Days Without End
REVIEW by Willard Manus
The Irish writer Sebastian Barry gets deep into Americas dark, savage history in DAYS WITHOUT END, his remarkable seventh novel (which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize). Published by Viking, the novels 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 nations indigenous people.
All gentility and civility disappeared when they became soldiers and began to gun down Indians-and buffalo--on behalf of Californias 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 armys 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. Its 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.