Booker longlist reading: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Sebastian Barry is a highly respected and fêted Irish author, and this latest book has already won the Costa Best Book award for 2016. I’d been on the verge of buying it all year, and I’m not sure what held me back. I finally bought an ebook version and started with that. I also picked up the audiobook to finish the last few chapters.
This book has received a mixed reception among our little Booker longlist reader community. Liz loved it but it didn’t work for Teresa or Rosario, and I’ve seen similar criticisms in a Goodreads New Fiction group I lurk on. I’m a sucker for Western-set litfic, both historical and contemporary, so I was pretty sure I’d like this and I did.
The story opens in 1851, when the narrator, Thomas McNulty, meets his future friend, lover, and partner, John Cole, under a hedge in Missouri. They’re both young and broke and join together to find ways to support themselves, falling in love along the way. After a couple of years masquerading as young women to serve as dance partners for miners, they outgrow their roles and join up with the Army. As soldiers they remain side by side, experiencing the Indian wars on the western plains of Nebraska and Wyoming, the Civil War in Maryland and Virginia, Andersonville prison camp, and finally farm life in Tennessee (with interruptions along the way). They adopt an American Indian orphan, Winona, and together the three of them make a family that does its best to stick together through some of the country’s most turbulent times.
Barry is an Irish writer and McNulty is an Irish migrant to the US, and Irishness pervades this novel. I loved that aspect of it, because it gives life to the historical fact that over a million Irish people immigrated to the US between 1840 and 1860, many because of the Great Famine. They were Catholic, poor, and desperate, and they were looked down on by the “Scotch-Irish” Protestants who preceded them and settled in the southern US. McNulty takes note of the other Irishmen he meets, many of whom are also recent arrivals and who have been conscripted into the Union Army. This is a part of American history that isn’t as well known as the Ellis Island migration period, which tends to dominate our understanding of 19th and early 20thC immigration.
The novel is essentially structured as three parts, with the first part comprising McNulty and Cole’s pre-Civil War experiences, the second comprising the Civil War and Andersonville, and the third their post-Civil War lives. Soldiering and the consequences of actions they take while serving have ramifications that persist over decades, and it is only at the very end of the book that they achieve some sort of stable, predictable future. The war sections are violent and explicit, although as other reviewers have noted, the beautiful language and the juxtaposition of brutal human actions with the stunning natural setting can make the violence seem removed. This distancing is exacerbated by the style, which tells the story entirely through McNulty’s POV and features little direct dialogue. McNulty claims to be uneducated and not very bright, but his narration is eloquent and insightful. Some readers won’t buy the contradiction, but I did (maybe it fell too neatly into the Irish Storyteller stereotype, but it worked for me).
The novel is all about the tension between the brutality of which human beings are capable and their equally intense capacity to love and build relationships and communities. The soldiers who fight the Sioux, punctuated by their fight of brother against brother in the Civil War, build communities and relationships among themselves at the same time they are destroying Native American ones. McNulty and John Cole fall in love with each other and that’s what matters to them, not their genders or what that love signifies to others. They extend their love to Winona, fiercely and absolutely, and protecting her is the one thing you can see dividing them. McNulty presents himself as a woman, first for practical economic reasons, then for self-protection, and eventually because he’s comfortable that way, but it doesn’t lead to much rumination on gender, it is just who he is. The novel seems to be trying to find and convince us of the universality of human experience.
It also made me think, especially in the Indian wars sections, that human brutality is at its most horrible when we don’t see the humanity in others. McNulty respects the Sioux tribal chief but many of his fellow soldiers just see “Indians” who need to be conquered or driven out. Indians are killed and murdered the same way animals would be, without second thought. And the soldiers’ actions are worse because they seem so routinized. It’s just what you do when your opponent isn’t someone you recognize as having the same qualities as you. Barry does a masterful job of showing these qualities through individual behavior, rather than attributing them to a larger ideology or political consensus. I knew the book was violent, but the final violent event got to me despite the fact that I was semi-prepared for it. I knew it was coming, I could see it coming, and I couldn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t so much the individual losses as the sense that this WAS the story of the conquest of the American West, and this event had hundreds of others behind and in front of it.
Liz observed in her review that this didn’t feel like an “American” novel, and I’ve thought a lot about that as I was reading and since I finished. My initial reaction was that it was definitely an American novel, but I also think now that it is not the novel most American authors would have written. It’s almost impossible for Americans not to see this history retrospectively, through the lenses of later immigrant waves and a consolidated American continent. In some ways that is what makes Barry’s novel so valuable to me: this IS the America of the 1850s through 1870s, if we’re talking about the plains and intermountain west. This territory wasn’t “American” in the sense that the east, south, and midwestern US had become. He nails the look and feel of Nebraska and Wyoming (as well as Missouri and Tennessee), and the wildness and savagery of the landscape and the human cost of conquering it sit side by side with its natural beauty.
A lot of discussion around this novel has centered on the identity, gender, and race issues: McNulty and John Cole’s relationship, their adoption of a Sioux girl, and McNulty’s gender fluidity. I certainly noted and appreciated these aspects, but I didn’t find them as unrealistic as some critics did or as symbolically important as other readers, perhaps because I was reading this as a story about one man’s journey in an unsettled, violent era. If there was anywhere you could create a “found family” and reinvent yourself, it had to be the American West in the mid-19thC. So little was established or stable, and survival and comradeship counted for more than conformity, by a lot.
So, if I liked Days Without End so much, does it vault to the top of my longlist? I said on Twitter that it didn’t quite displace Reservoir 13 and Autumn, although I reserve the right to change my mind. My gut feeling is that the last quarter, while incredibly powerful, moves too quickly and packs too much in compared to the first three-quarters of the story. I accepted how the story ended, but the resolution felt rushed. I’ll keep thinking about it, though. It is definitely a book that has stayed with me and to which I expect to return.