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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Days Without End
Days Without End
by Sebastian Barry

Paperback (12 Sep 2017), 272 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 9780143111405
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry's latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.

"I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now."

From the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist Sebastian Barry, "a master storyteller" (Wall Street Journal), comes a powerful new novel of duty and family set against the American Indian and Civil Wars.

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars - against the Sioux and the Yurok - and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.

Chapter One

The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake. Like decking out our poor lost troopers for marriage rather than death. All their uniforms brushed down with lamp-oil into a state never seen when they were alive. Their faces clean shaved, as if the embalmer sure didn't like no whiskers showing. No one that knew him could have recognised Trooper Watchorn because those famous Dundrearies was gone. Anyway Death likes to make a stranger of your face. True enough their boxes weren't but cheap wood but that was not the point. You lift one of those boxes and the body makes a big sag in it. Wood cut so thin at the mill it was more a wafer than a plank. But dead boys don't mind things like that. The point was, we were glad to see them so well turned out, considering.

I am talking now about the finale of my first engagement in the business of war. 1851 it was most likely. Since the bloom was gone off me, I had volunteered  aged seventeen in Missouri. If you had all your limbs they took you. If you were a one-eyed boy they might take you too even so. The only pay worse than the worst pay in America was army pay. And they fed you queer stuff till your shit just stank. But you were glad to get work because if you didn't work for the few dollars in America you hungered, I had learned that lesson. Well, I was sick of hungering.

Believe me when I say there is a certain type of man loves soldiering, no matter how mean the pay. First thing, you got a horse. He might be a spavined nag, he might be plagued by colic, he might show a goitre in his neck the size of a globe, but he was a horse. Second place, you got a uniform. It might have certain shortcomings in the stitching department, but it was a uniform. Blue as a bluebottle's hide.

Swear to God, army was a good life. I was seventeen or thereabouts beginning, I could not say for certain. I will not say the years going up to my army days was easy. But all that dancing put muscle on me, in a wiry sort of way. I'm not speaking against my customers, I'm speaking for them. If you pay a dollar for a dance you like a good few sweeps of the floor for that, God knows.

Yes, the army took me, I'm proud to say. Thank God John Cole was my first friend in America and so in the army too and the last friend for that matter. He was with me nearly all through this exceeding surprising Yankee sort of life which was good going in every way. No more than a boy like me but even at sixteen years old he looked like a man right enough. I first saw him when he was fourteen or so, very different. That's what the saloon owner said too. Time's up, fellas, you ain't kids no more, he says. Dark face, black eyes, Indian eyes they called them that time. Glittering. Older fellas in the platoon said Indians were just evil boys, blank-faced evil boys fit to kill you soon as look at you. Said Indians were to be cleared off the face of the earth, most like that would be the best policy. Soldiers like to talk high. That's how courage is made most like, said John Cole, being an understanding man.

John Cole and me we came to the volunteering point together of course. We was offering ourselves in a joint sale I guess and the same look of the arse out of his trousers that I had he had too. Like twins. Well when we finished up at the saloon we didn't leave in no dresses. We must have looked like beggar boys. He was born in New England where the strength died out of his father's earth. John Cole was only twelve when he lit out a-wandering. First moment I saw him I thought, there's a pal. That's what it was. Thought he was a dandy-looking sort of boy. Pinched though he was in the face by hunger. Met him under a hedge in goddamn Missouri. We was only under the hedge as a consequence the heavens were open in a downpour. Way out on those mudflats beyond old St Louis. Expect to see a sheltering duck sooner than a human. Heavens open. I scarper for cover and suddenly he's there. Might have never seen him otherwise. Friend for a whole life. Strange and fateful encounter you could say. Lucky. But first thing he draws a little sharp knife he carried made of a broken spike. He was intending to stick it in me if I looked to go vicious against him. He was a very kept-back-looking thirteen years old I reckon. Anyhows under the hedge aforementioned when we got to talking he said his great-grandma was a Indian whose people were run out of the east long since. Over in Indian country now. He had never met them. Don't know why he told me that so soon only I was very friendly and

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. Copyright © 2017 by Sebastian Barry. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In Days Without End, the love that two U.S. Army volunteers have for each other helps them survive the horrors of the Indian Wars and the Civil War.

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Irish author Sebastian Barry has written multiple novels about the McNulty clan of Sligo, Ireland, inspired by the lives of his ancestors. When I heard that Days Without End (which was named the 2016 Costa Book of the Year), takes place in nineteenth-century America, I worried he wouldn't be able to bring a different setting to life. Fortunately, I was wrong. An entirely believable look at the life of the American soldier in the 1850s and 1860s, this novel succeeds due in part to its folksy dialect and a perfect balance between adventuresome spirit and repulsion at wartime carnage.

The narrator is Thomas McNulty, who snuck onto a ship to Canada after his family died during Ireland's potato famine. By age 17 he pitches up in Daggsville, Missouri, where he meets the man who will become his lover and lifelong friend, John Cole, and together they volunteer for the Army. "We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world," Thomas, now an older man looking back on his eventful youth, writes. He paints himself and John as innocents, whereas at that time an outsider might have considered them degenerates.

For instance, while they await their first deployment, they take a job dancing in drag at a saloon for two years. At various points in the novel, Thomas dresses in women's clothing for entertainment or disguise. During the American-Indian Wars they also encounter Native American braves who regularly cross-dress, a practice called berdache or winkte (see 'Beyond the Book'). On periods of leave, Thomas and John rent a property where they live with their adopted daughter like a conventional family. I think readers will cheer at how Barry allows this relationship to seem ordinary rather than transgressive.

In some respects, then, the book is a lighthearted picaresque, but it is also a frank and sobering account of violent conflict. At the American soldiers' first engagement in California, they massacre an encampment of Yurok people, so caught up in bloodlust they hardly notice their victims are all women and children. This becomes a pattern: slaughtering or being slaughtered, burying the dead, and then setting off to take revenge on "enemies," such as the Sioux warrior Caught-His-Horse-First. Later, as Union soldiers, Thomas and John endure a ghastly battle in Virginia, are held prisoner in Georgia, and see a row of lynched blacks while traveling to Tennessee.

The curious mixture of tones – both cheerful and grave – works for a few reasons. One is Thomas's straightforward narration: Whether revealing that he and John sleep together, or describing war crimes, his manner is always blunt and unabashed. He's simply describing things as they are. Also, Thomas doesn't shy away from contradictions; he recognizes that conscience versus duty and sympathy versus hatred for the enemy are opposite pulls operating at the same time. And finally, his tragic past puts the atrocities he's witnessing into perspective to an extent, and also encourages him to seize happiness whenever he can.

While this novel shares some elements with Westerns and Civil War fiction, it's unique in several ways. Though thrilling and episodic, it's deeply thoughtful as well. Thomas writes semi-literate English – his punctuation and grammar are non-standard, and many sentences are incomplete – but delivers profound, beautiful statements all the same. Lovely metaphors and memorable turns of phrase abound, such that my copy is littered with Post-Its marking lines to revisit. Here are a couple of favorites:

It is approaching dusk and that same God is pulling a ragged black cloth slowly across his handiwork.

Our fears are burned off in the smelter of battle leaving only a murderous courage. Now we might be celestial children out to rob the apples in the orchards of God, fearless, fearless, fearless.

Perhaps in homage to his Irish heritage, Thomas is also very funny. "Gangrene got in and that's a dancing partner no trooper chooses," he jokes. On a hot day he jests, "You can feel your back begin to cook. Pinch of salt and a few sprigs of rosemary and you got a dinner."

Many war novels feel unbearably long and depressing, but Barry is a master of the condensed narrative, covering 15 years or more in just 260 pages and all along alternating between brutality and optimism. "Killing hurts the heart and soils the soul," Thomas asserts, but in the midst of it he also finds camaraderie – and love.

Days Without End is dedicated to Barry's son, Toby, whose coming-out inspired him to think about where homosexuality might have been present in forgotten pockets of history. It contains the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I've ever encountered in historical fiction.

Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: these may be clichés, but here's one novel that is all these things and more. Truly unforgettable.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Publishers Weekly
The explicit battle scenes may also be difficult to take, but they have energy and intensity, in contrast with Thomas and John's love story, which traces without much drama how Thomas comes to realize he prefers dresses to a uniform.

Kirkus Reviews
A pleasure for fans of Barry and his McNulty stories and a contribution not just to Irish literature in English, but also the literature of the American West.

Booklist
Starred Review. Evocative of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis, Days without End is a timeless work of historical fiction.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Barry writes with a gloomy gloriousness: everyone that crosses his pages is in mortal danger, but there's an elegant beauty even in the most fraught moments

The Independent (UK)
Epic, lyrical and constantly suprising ... a rich and satisfying novel.

The Guardian (UK)
Days Without End is a work of staggering openness; its startlingly beautiful sentences are so capacious that they are hard to leave behind, its narrative so propulsive that you must move on. In its pages, Barry conjures a world in miniature, inward, quiet, sacred; and a world of spaces and borders so distant they can barely be imagined.

Financial Times (UK)
Days Without End is not only a story of survival, it is a love story, too, written in a gorgeous style that blends Barry's characteristic eloquence with the straight-talk of early America . . . Days Without End takes the reader back to a critical point of fracture in the history of the US ... Barry appears to paint a world where outsiders can find a path through the destruction wreaked all around.

The Times (UK)
The novel comes close to being a modern masterpiece. Written in a style that is as delicate and economical as a spider's web, it builds to a climax that is as brutally effective as a punch to the gut.

The Daily Mail (UK)
Remarkable ... Life-affirming in the truest and best ways.

The Scotsman (UK)
The narrative is gripping, descriptions of landscape vivid and beautiful, evocations of military life, brutal warfare, cruelty and courage utterly compelling.

The Irish Times
Sebastian Barry is the most humane of writers. The leeway is always generous; beauty is mined to its last redemptive glint. Like McNulty, the voice is humorous, compassionate, true. It is his glory as a writer. It is the stern, glorious music of a great novel.

Author Blurb Kazuo Ishiguro, Booker Prize winning author of The Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant
A true leftfield wonder: Days Without End is a violent, superbly lyrical western offering a sweeping vision of America in the making, the most fascinating line-by-line first person narration I've come across in years.

Author Blurb Donal Ryan, author of The Spinning Heart, winner of the Guardian first book award
A beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence it grips and does not let go.

Print Article

The Native American Tradition of Winkte

The two main characters in Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, Thomas McNulty and John Cole, are white soldiers who at various points dress up as women for entertainment or disguise. They are thus surprised but bemused when they take part in the Indian Wars and encounter the Native Americans' winkte or berdache tradition of men who dress as women:

with the ease of men who have rid themselves of worry we strolled among the Indian tents and heard the sleeping babies breathing and spied out the wondrous kind called by the Indians winkte or by white men berdache, braves dressed in the finery of squaws. ...The berdache puts on men's garb when he goes to war, this I know. Then war over it's back to the bright dress.

Winkte is a shortened form of an old Lakota word, Winyanktehca, which roughly translates as "wants to be like a woman," while berdache comes from the French for a catamite, a boy who was kept for sexual favors. The tradition of men dressing as women and taking on the roles of women in peacetime is known in nearly two dozen different Native American tribes. It was first encountered by European traders and explorers in the seventeenth century, but may have been in existence for much longer. Chiefs and warriors kept winkte as sexual partners alongside their other wives, and they were sometimes believed to have special spiritual powers.

As white men's influence increased in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, missionaries and government agents tried to wipe out the winkte tradition, but even in the 1980s it was still being documented. The fact that the Great Spirit has no gender is often mentioned in defense, and various myths have arisen to explain how winkte individuals might come to be and what ritual roles they might serve. For example, here is one legend from The Spirit and the Flesh, by anthropologist Walter L. Williams:

Among the Arapahos of the Plains, berdaches are called haxu'xan and are seen to be that way as a result of a supernatural gift from birds or animals. Arapaho mythology recounts the story of Nih'a'ca, the first haxu'xan. He pretended to be a woman and married the mountain lion, a symbol for masculinity. The myth, as recorded by ethnographer Alfred Kroeber about 1900, recounted that "These people had the natural desire to become women, and as they grew up gradually became women. They gave up the desires of men. They were married to men. They had miraculous power and could do supernatural things. For instance, it was one of them that first made an intoxicant from rainwater."

In the 1990s, a convention of gay and lesbian Native Americans pushed for the adoption of a more positive, inclusive term than berdache, deciding on "Two-Spirit" to refer to anyone who does not fit into conventional male or female categories. The Two-Spirit tradition is now a part of the general Pride movement. However, historical terms still resonate: A transgender social organization in Fort Lauderdale, Florida calls itself the Winkte Club.

Picture of painting Dance to the Berdache by George Caitlin

By Rebecca Foster

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