Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

[I read this novel in three sections, each time writing about a section before moving on to read further. This means that I never knew what was coming next, or how it would end.]

3 April 2017
Chapters 1-8
Published last year, this book has received a lot of praise. It’s revisionist history, the unfeasibly frank (and poetic) first-person testimony of an Irish immigrant who joins the Yankee army at the age of seventeen. He has already made a very good friend by then, another boy we slowly realise has become his lover. The narrator doesn’t make a big thing of it, but he makes no secret of it either. A map at the front shows ‘The United States at the period of the Civil War,’ but we’re not there yet. From what we’ve seen already of the years leading up to the war, it won’t be pretty when we do get there.

The novel opens ten years before the war, as far as the narrator can remember, and the first hundred pages (of about 300) are mainly concerned with the protection of settlers heading west. We get the hellish life of the soldier in a company moving between Missouri and California, where the main duty turns out to be killing Indians. So far, Thomas McNulty has found himself participating in two massacres. In the second, the sergeant only grudgingly accepts that the cowering children should be rounded up and taken back to the fort, rather than bayonetted as all the women have been. The attack on the idyllic little village – Thomas refers to it as a ‘paradise’, and they are bringing hell to it – is like the attack at the beginning of Apocalypse Now. There’s a decades-long tradition of artists of one kind or another wanting to tell America unpalatable truths about its own past. Coppola wanted to portray Vietnam as America’s Heart of Darkness. Barry is doing something similar…

…and his decision to use that first-person voice is the most interesting thing about the novel for me. Sometimes I find it problematic, being the kind of reader who always finds plausibility an issue: there’s no way I can believe that an ex-soldier – a gay ex-soldier in the 19th Century – ever spoke like this. But it doesn’t really matter. I recently re-read Nabokov’s deliberately provocative essay on readers and writers, in which he warns of the dangers of seeking a true version of the past in fiction. ‘Can we expect to glean information about places and times from a novel? Can anybody be so naive as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from [so-called] historical novels? … The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales.’ Nabokov is writing about ‘great novels’ by writers like Austen and Dickens. And if they aren’t presenting historical truth, what of a novel like Days Without End?

I think we have to take the voice that Barry has invented for his narrator and celebrate it for what it is. Nobody reading this is likely to forget that it’s a fiction written in the second decade of the 21st Century – so why don’t I just get on with enjoying that voice? I kept finding myself trying to guess what accent he would have – he is at least fifty as he narrates his story, having left Ireland in his early teens – because this is the voice of a speaker, not a writer. From the opening sentence we can tell he isn’t well educated. ‘The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.’ A sentence or two later, the corpse is ‘clean-shaved, as if the embalmer sure didn’t like no whiskers showing.’

It’s Barry’s sleight of hand, of course. His narrator’s engagingly frank, honest-sounding language hides the hard work the novelist is having to do. That opening introduces a device found in novels rather than in oral narratives: our attention is engaged by way of details of the aftermath of an event that doesn’t take place until many chapters later. (Poor dead Trooper Watchorn, whose name we learn later in the opening paragraph, doesn’t die – of wounds received from soldiers on his own side – until page 62.) And, for instance, ugly truths about mid-19th Century history are made to emerge almost accidentally so that, as readers, we come to understand them as gradually as Thomas himself. But this totally inhibition-free narrative feels like the artifice of the professional writer. Men who have done the things that Thomas McNulty has done keep quiet about it.

So, in this artfully-wrought narrative, we learn about life in the far western states after the frontier has reached the Pacific. It’s the kind of hidden history that has become de rigueur in historical novels of the past two or three decades, and that is one of the selling points of Barry’s novels. (The First World War, a rich seam, is the background to one of his most successful novels, A Long Long Way. As in Days Without End, the Irish perspective adds another dimension, or a kind of parallax alternative to what we’re used to.) So the Native Americans, even though Thomas can sympathise with their plight, are a pest to be controlled, or eradicated if necessary. The hastily-built mining towns become a kind of male monoculture where fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boys like him and his friend John Cole can be employed as dancing partners, complete with dresses, padded breasts and makeup. (Thomas states forthrightly that no sexual activity is permitted, yet describes how many of the men, while knowing that they are dancing with boys, still fantasise about a married life together. Do we believe him? He warns us very early on how unreliable his own memory can be after all this time.)

Along the way, he describes the story of his own childhood, and the unimaginable hunger that killed most of his family in Ireland. He doesn’t make a big thing of it, because that isn’t how Barry chooses to use his narrator’s voice. Matter-of-fact understatement – the death of his father is described only in passing – combined with a totally unwavering frankness gives the whole narrative an air of childlike innocence. (When I read a little further, I’ll look out for some lines to quote.) Which means that when he is forced to take part in atrocities he will describe the fear and deep misgivings he has – but he will also describe the visceral thrill of it all, the way that soldiers together will enter a set of the mind that will let them murder women. If they had been ordered to murder the children too, we know they would have done it.

Underlying all this are whatever moral and religious baggage the characters bring with them. The major in charge of Thomas’s cavalry unit, beneath the military façade he is obliged to present, is clearly appalled by the orders he receives from the top brass. He carries them out, because there is nothing else he can do, but he will always err on the side of clemency. He is capable of acting on his own initiative, even setting up a school for orphaned Indian children in the fort – he is clearly a man out of place in a society that has opted for de facto genocide. The sergeant, on the other hand, presents what is perhaps too neat a contrast. You get the feeling that he thinks genocide is too good for these animals. (It seems he is not long for this world. The health of these men is always precarious – we have seen the hunger, cold and contagious illnesses that plague them – and he seems to be suffering from something that looks like cancer. So it goes.)

So Thomas and John, innocents in a world that brutalises boys like them, join the army and have to follow orders they don’t like at all. But what else can they do? History is getting written, but not by people like Thomas. An Irish novelist might come along a century and more later to give him a voice, and it’s comforting to be able to hear him sympathising with the plight of the Native Americans as the white men renege on yet another treaty. The history is all too believable – but this voice, telling us a totally unembellished version of what we want to hear, places it among Nabokov’s fairy tales.

18 April
Chapters 9-15
It’s an engaging read. It’s still a fairy-tale – some of those long passages of poetry are impossibly lyrical and evocative – but Thomas McNulty’s voice continues to be sympathetic. His descriptions of army (and other) life are humane and believable, and he muses appealingly on what his almost impossibly hard life is teaching him: amid the horror, there are little – or not so little – acts of kindness that demonstrate that humanity is not a lost cause. People don’t have to do things for others in extremity, he says at one point, but they do them anyway, and it’s something he often sees. But it’s the dramatic set pieces that are most memorable – beginning with an encounter with an Indian chief in Chapter 9 that seems to represent the dying of an old world. Novels like this are full of that elegiac wistfulness for things whose end we’re invited to witness.

That Indian chief. Two years after the massacre in his village this man, once the scourge of the US Army in this region, calls for a meeting. His ceremonial battledress looks magnificent, and Thomas describes how every soldier has a gut urge to shoot the bogey-man, the bane of their lives for years. But maybe he chief knows the major’s ways, Thomas speculates – he’s as thorough and thoughtful a narrator as any novelist – and maybe the major knows him. Closer up, they can see how scrawny both the man and his horse really are – the times are only getting harder – and all he seems to want from the meeting is the return of his daughter. This is granted, and he turns to leave with her sitting behind him. But Starling Carlton, a notorious diehard we’ve encountered before and the man in charge of the chief’s weapons is not the major. He tells everyone later he couldn’t stand the thought of the chief riding around with the carbine he must have killed for, ‘gun royalty,’ when all that the soldiers have are muskets. He knifes the chief, but he doesn’t die and Carlton’s foot gets shot. As the chief rides off, the company sniper Elijah ‘Lige’ Magan fires a shot that kills the daughter. It’s a perfect commentary on the ragged end-game to decades of suspicion and betrayal.

From then on, most chapters contain a new episode. The 1850s slip by, or lurch by – Barry allows Thomas to be fairly vague about the passage a year here, two years there – and ‘handsome John Cole’ gets a recurring ailment that the major deems serious enough to warrant a discharge. He lets Thomas go too, either having implausibly advanced views or simply respecting the depth of the bond that these two men have always shown since joining up together. Thomas, at other times, remarks on the strong bonds of friendship between various comrades, with no hint of sexual attraction. Sometimes this novel… never mind.

The pair move to a town, I forget where, and set up home with an eight-year-old Indian girl from the fort’s school, run by the major’s wife. (Did I mention the wife? She had been a fairly recent addition, and runs the school in the fort for the orphans after the massacre. She is even more highly principled than her husband, and even Thomas can understand why she is the subject of the men’s universal longing. And lust, he says.) By way of the miracle that is the American postal system – Barry often has Thomas mention it, so perhaps it really was like this – they are able to get in touch with a figure from their past. He is their old boss, the one who had run the dance saloon and – take it or leave it – they are able to start careers as variety performers. Thomas is such a glamorous drag act he regularly reduces the audience to almost shocked silence. He quite likes women’s clothes, wears them at home because they are easier. But, obviously, he doesn’t make a big thing of it. (How much of this am I believing? Does it matter?) But there are rumours in the air of things happening back east. There’s something about a theory that we were all ape-men once – John says he finds this very easy to believe, ho-ho – and there are gathering clouds of war. This must be the early 1860s, so…

…they join up again, and I can’t remember how they end up in a regiment commanded by the same major. He’s a colonel now, but they still think of him as the major anyway. There’s a battle that they win, an ambush on their camp that they manage to survive with some heavy losses and, in the chapter I’ve just read, a battle that they join as replacements for worn-out fighting men only to be suddenly overwhelmed by massive numbers of the ‘Rebs’. They are taken prisoner, and have to watch the hundred Blacks in their company being summarily shot. Was it Tolstoy who invented this way of describing great events from the point of view of the foot-soldier? Certainly, by the 1880s Rudyard Kipling was focusing more on life in the infantryman’s tent, and not the officers’ HQ. Barry, as you would expect, pulls fewer punches….

…and he makes it all feel plausible. He’s previously written about the First World War, as I’ve mentioned, and he describes these Civil War battles in the same kind of credible detail. (The last novel I read that had so many carefully described features of Civil War military life was Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues. The precise research that the weekend Civil War re-enactors do in that novel matches Sebastian Barry’s in this one.) As ever, Thomas leaves nothing out, from the sad remains of men burnt to black gristle to the pile of amputated limbs in the hospital tent following the ambush. We get the soldiers’ almost universal desire to throw up before battle – the breakfast of Starling Carlton, a man everybody knows to be no coward, makes a loud reappearance, and nobody mocks him – and pissing your pants is almost too common to mention. At least it cleans your boots.

As I said, it’s all plausible, but I can’t help thinking that Barry could write some of this in his sleep. In the second decade of the 21st Century, this is how you describe war. Except… when they are taken prisoner and suffer a winter of hunger, whilst Thomas might not gloss over some of the effects, neither does he describe the horrors as graphically as, say, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. In that novel, the author had an axe to grind: his father was a survivor of the Japanese Siam Railway, and it’s a live issue for the son that the atrocities should never be forgotten. Barry allows Thomas to describe the horrors in general terms – a headless drummer-boy features in John Cole’s dreams – but there aren’t the gut-wrenching details of what it is like to die of hunger that are presented in Flanagan’s narrative. Authors have choices to make, I suppose, and a bit of tact doesn’t go amiss. Thomas never describes the sex he has with John Cole either.

I should write about some of those poetic moments, or the little thumbnail descriptions of army life, of nature, and the impossibly incongruous way that these rub up against each other. Maybe after I’ve finished reading what Thomas does next. Not long now – they can’t be kept prisoner forever.

20 April
Chapters 16-23 – to the end
Yep, fairy-tale. Or something else, once our two friends are released from the camp where the guards are as starved and half-frozen as the prisoners. It’s still as episodic as ever, but things happen so quickly sometimes that the old plod has been replaced by plot overload. Suddenly we’re in a picaresque novel in which the characters are overtaken by unlikely events, and the reader is forced to abandon the idea of any of this being a plausible account of anything at all. There’s the mildly interesting side-show of the issue of gender transformation, but Thomas’s new friends’ acceptance of his new self is no more plausible than anything else. By the end, it feels like hokum.

[Pause – two weeks later]

So, two pages into the prison-camp chapter and against all the odds, Thomas and John are released in a prisoner exchange. They assume that those left behind will not survive, and say their last goodbyes to one particular friend of theirs, Dan FitzGerald. We aren’t at all surprised when he turns up later, because things like that have started to happen in this novel now. They spend some months recovering, but are given early release papers from the army. They assume they will never have to fight again – they clearly don’t know what sort of novel this has become – and wonder whether a career on the stage is still feasible after their looks have been spoiled by disease and months of near-starvation. The answer turns out to be yes, and for a while they, and Winona, are able to earn a living…

…but novels like this can’t stay still for long. After only a paragraph of this happiness, and the final ending of the war, it seems that the old days of the all-male mining towns are coming to an end. Their friendly boss (yes, the same one as before) has to let them go. Luckily, there’s somewhere to go. ‘Lige’ Magan had moved to his father’s farm before the war – but they’re an anti-slavery family and are on the wrong side in Tennessee, a dyed-in-the-wool Confederate state. The father had been struggling long before Lige’s arrival, and dies soon after. Even now that the war is over, it’s still hard to make a living where memories are long. Where better for our happy three to make a new life for themselves? John buys some ex-army mules, and they set off. By now, Thomas’s clothing of choice is his woman’s wardrobe from their days on the stage, but that’s all right. There’s some trouble on the road – but not much: a nasty gang, led by a man who looks like an out-of-work Confederate general, tries to take them on. But John shoots first, Thomas, with a gun hidden inside his dress, shoots next and Winona uses the tiny pistol the faithful Black retainer had given her for use in an emergency. The gang are mostly all dead, although they aren’t sure about the general. Save that for later.

At the farm, everything goes far better than they could ever have hoped. Lige’s wife, if that’s what she is, is hard-working and perfectly ok about Thomas’s gender realignment. The ex-army mules that John had bought are as good at mule stuff as Winona is at accountancy and as Thomas is at being a woman, and… and so on, as the seasons pass and the first harvest is brought in successfully. It’s like the idealised existence imagined by the characters in Of Mice and Men, only real. Until, one day – did you guess? – along comes the general and a much bigger gang to kill them all. But he didn’t reckon with the men’s shooting skill – Lige had been a sharpshooter, remember, the one who shot the Indian chief’s daughter – or the women’s willingness to do as well as the men. But Thomas, who has noticed a couple of gang members creeping round behind the barn, finds himself trapped when he follows them. It’s certain death for our hero, until – this time you definitely won’t guess – somebody shoots the other man. It’s Starling Carlton, arriving not just at the right minute, but the right second after all these years. That’s lucky.

Carlton is there to pick up Winona. The Indian chief is demanding her in exchange for the old major’s daughter, kidnapped along with her mother and sister but now the only survivor after the other two have been killed. John, who has come to think of Winona as the daughter they always pretend she is, is distraught, but what can he do? He has a bad leg wound from the gun-fight, and realises that he has to hand her over. Thomas, however, isn’t wounded, and he decides to follow Carlton and Winona all the way back. He loses them, but finds his way to the old fort anyway – to find the major a broken shadow of his former self.

Are you believing any of this? It gets far worse, involving handbrake-turn alterations in personality, bizarre coincidences and more last-minute lifesaving interventions. The personality change is the major’s, and even after the two girls are exchanged, as agreed, he orders a deadly raid on the Indian village. Thomas, hoping to rescue Winona, is reinstated on a temporary army contract – a preposterous bit of plot business that Barry introduces in order to bring about the book’s final crisis. But that’s still some way off, because first all the Indians but one need to be massacred – the one being Winona, still wearing the army uniform she was exchanged in despite the passage of at least 24 hours. It’s Thomas who rescues her from the centre of a tent full of terrified women and children, and… what? He comes face-to-face with Starling Carlton, who he still regards as a friend in spite of everything. Carlton is determined to follow the major’s orders to the letter, and is going to shoot the girl. Thomas has no gun, but he has a sabre and the element of surprise on his side. A disgruntled German somebody-or-other – for the life of me, I can’t remember what he’s doing with the army – witnesses Thomas slashing Carlton across the face, killing him.

All good. Thomas takes Winona home – nobody ever seems to get lost in all the hundreds of miles covered in this novel – and they are all set to live happily ever after…. But no, because Barry has more tricks to play on his hapless hero. An army posse, led by their old mate Poulson, arrives from the fort. They are looking for Thomas McNulty, deserter, and there’s a price on his head. But John, thinking quickly, and Thomas, despite not being as clean-shaven as usual, seem able to fool them that the grave near the barn is that of the man they are seeking. They leave – but soon afterwards, Poulson sends a letter addressed to Thomas. He hadn’t been fooled for a minute, recognised him immediately, and suggests he comes to town to face the charge. They will be able to reach an agreement, he is sure – he doesn’t want to be responsible for the death of an old friend. Phew.

But… Thomas finds himself dragged all the way back north (or east, I forget which), to face a court martial. He might have been able to convince them that his army contract had only been temporary and that he major was supposed to have signed him off but, through sheer bad luck, the German is there and accuses him of the murder of Starling Carlton. The presiding officers have heard enough, and Thomas is condemned to death. So it’s the end, yes? Obviously not, as we know he will live until he is at least 50. Luckily, the major, now retired, has heard of Thomas’s plight and saves him. While Thomas has been waiting on Death Row – the army takes its time, luckily – the major has interviewed other men who saw the incident. He has enough evidence to confirm that Thomas killed Carlton only to save the life of the girl he was going to kill, and Thomas is free to leave. Oh, the irony: the man who ordered the massacre saves a life by citing the convention that prisoners are not to be killed. Not that I care any more.

The end, more or less. Thomas makes his way back to the farm, to John, and to future happiness. The final sentence confirms how easy it all is: ‘It were only a short stretch of walking down through those pleasing states of Missouri and Tennessee.’ Ah, bless.

What I find so frustrating about this novel is that there are pages of marvellous descriptive writing, or insights into how uneducated men might reach conclusions about right behaviour, or musing little passages of one man’s thoughts about love, or loss, or forgiveness. But they are reached by way of such absurd narrative tracks that the reader is distracted from them. It’s all lovely, it’s all very interesting – but what’s the point if not a word of it is believable? Is there anything at all in this author’s world-view that we needn’t be sceptical about, like how it must have felt to have been a woman born in a man’s body in the mid-19th Century? As Nabokov would have said, you’d better look in here for your answers.