“The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.”
ELENA Ferrante took four books to portray her Neapolitan chronicles, so Sebastian Barry follows the fortunes of the McNulty family in different, self standing tomes, just as he did in earlier works with the Dunne family starting with a Long Long Way which was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker prize. The McNulty’s can also be found in the Scriptures and in Whereabouts and a Temporary Gentleman.
Here we go further back in time to 1851, to Missouri, already an Irishman abroad…or here a boy.
Ferrante is of course in translation, where Barry is first hand English (for me). You can climb around these words as if they are a children’s playground. You can dig ditches in the sentences. Move carefully mind, not all is all. Each paragraph has a cleverness, a radiance. The tone has acquired an American lilt.
“Then rain began to fall in an extravagant tantrum. High up in the mountain country though we were, every little river became a huge muscled snake, and the water wanted to find out everything, the meaning of our sad roofs for instance, the meaning of our bunk beds beginning to take the character of little barks, the sure calculation that if it fell day and night no human man was going to get his uniform dry. We was wet to the ribs.”
And it moves along at a fair old pace, a vaudeville show, a buffalo hunt, a massacre, a town shindig, the cold, a flash flood, the encounters with Indians plus time to sketch in his arrival from Ireland. His mother and sister “perished like stray cats” and the old ships started bringing ruined people to Canada. It is deceptively an adventure story that romps along before we have even been introduced to many of the characters. Barry drops little clues to the plot on the wayside as we go west through Virginia and Kentucky. There is even time for a final plot twist on the penultimate page.
At a first glance, you might dismiss all this as a travelogue through America’s travails, but, but read within the arc of Irish history it becomes a different beast, read against other descriptions of battleground scenes from later world wars, read against modern America’s self discovery, against the McNulty family’s own declensions, even in terms of its sexuality, it starts to bristle and beam. Words and language are distilled from the diaries of solders, the idiom of the bayonet, the boredom and Bowie knife, men unfettered by women, commissioned to violence, surviving, or not, in the wilderness of the prairie.
You might want to read this as it were clearing out the belongings of a recently deceased relative in Sligo. In a back drawer you find this tome and start to read in someone else’s old armchair in a room full of cobwebs, dirty windows and memories. I never knew Thomas was that way, a transvestite! The gayness is axiomatic rather than central although the word queer appears quite a few times in different contexts. With a writer like Barry, surely no accident.
Here is another sample of the colour of the writing: “There’s big tall men in the next row of tents that are gunners in charge of mortars. You never seen such wide thick arms on men or wide thick barrels on guns. Look like cannon that have been eating nothing but molasses for a year. Swole up like a giant’s pecker.”
The title Days Without End is somewhat fey and off message. It might have been more obvious to say Thomas McNulty’s American wars. It will make a great western, less John Wayne, more Quentin Tarantino. With an added frisson of a few frills.