As always when I listen to an audiobook, it’s hard to write about Days Without End in specific detail. But here is a line I rewound and replayed:
the little kingdom we have pitched up against the darkness
This is an image of the domestic life narrator Thomas McNulty builds with “handsome John Cole,” his companion, “my beau, my love.” Their kingdom recurs in periods of tranquility between horrors. It works as a description of the novel, too, I think, which is a strangely beautiful, humane and hopeful depiction of horror, which offers us love not as a fix for fear and violence and hatred, but as a force which will always exist alongside them, offering consolation.
This is a Western of sorts: McNulty comes to America as an orphan fleeing the Irish famine, a horror he speaks of mostly indirectly. He and John Cole, a pair of starving, ragged boys, meet under a hedge in Missouri–they are “nothing people.” They dress as girls and work in a saloon, dancing with miners (that this is presented as absolutely not sex work is only one of the ways the book tested my suspension of disbelief). They join the Army and go west to fight Indians, adopting a Sioux girl named Winona. They work in vaudeville (McNulty dressing as a woman, again). They rejoin the Army to fight for the Union side in the Civil War. They make a family with Winona (McNulty as the mother, preferring dresses) on a farm in Tennessee, along with a fellow veteran and two of his father’s former slaves.
I thought, at first, that I wouldn’t read this, because it seemed so likely to go wrong. You can probably see from the summary just how much it could. And though I loved it, I’m not sure it didn’t.
But first, what did I love? The lovely, hypnotic, prose, whose rhythm was enhanced by Aidan Kelly‘s narration (check the reviews linked below for some quotations). It was most notable, perhaps, in the scenes of violence, but it didn’t “prettify” their horror; instead it conveyed the strange, trance-like state McNulty entered in battle. One review I read described the novel as a “fever dream” and another comments that “It may seem incongruous to call a novel as violent as ‘Days Without End’ dreamlike, but Barry’s narrator is a gentle witness to brutality.” That seems to me spot on: McNulty maintains a kind of innocence, tenderness and humanity through everything–without being impossibly angelic–that helps make the novel bearable. Because it is dark and sad and cruel, and often painful to read. For the last hour or so of listening, I felt slightly sick with the tension and really wished I could peek ahead to see how things turned out.
I’ll be thinking about this novel for a long time, and there’s so much I could say about it. But here’s just one more thing. Despite the setting, this is not an American novel. Until almost the very end, McNulty thinks of himself as “a Irish” rather than as American, and Barry’s perspective struck me as very Irish too. Looking at American history from this different angle was interesting but sometimes confounding. Barry’s idea that his Irish hero is “himself essentially a native person, an aboriginal person,” like the Native Americans he slaughters (and the one he adopts, taking her from her own people) is–well, no one needs me to re-hash that one. I didn’t love the novel less because I wanted to argue back at it, but its alien perspective made for some blind spots and gaps, different from those an American author would have. (That line is from a Fresh Air interview with Barry which also gets at the “gay” element of the novel, another plot that raised a lot of questions for me). Maybe it’s not surprising that the novel’s center of value, the loving found family of McNulty, John Cole, and Winona, is also the place where the author’s own values, his need to make their kingdom a pure place “pitched against the dark,” leads him to over-simplify these identities and relationships.
I’m glad I didn’t skip Days Without End, and it could easily go on my shortlist despite my qualms. It’s strength is McNulty’s voice, his endurance, his insistence on love, and those are real strengths.