Days Without End
Thomas McNulty and John Cole are just boys in the 1840s when they meet under a hedge in a Missouri rainstorm. McNulty is an orphan from Ireland and Cole, from New England, has been on his own for a couple years. They know they will fare better if they stick together. A strong friendship protects McNulty and Cole during their early days as dancers in a miners’ saloon and later as soldiers in the Indian wars and the Civil War. Questions of morality, faith, and fate run through McNulty’s poetic narrative in a style like nothing else, mastered by Sebastian Barry. It’s an impressive feat that a writer can take a piece of ugly American history and throw a moving balance between love, friendship, honor and duty and the brutal violence that comes with following orders.
We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.
Together they enlist in the army, travel endless days and nights and are charged with the dirty business of clearing the western land of Native Americans. Fierce battles between their troops and tribes from the Sioux make the reader question again the senseless killings and how soldiers, many with nowhere else to go, must reconcile their actions with a need to survive.
McNulty wonders if God is looking out for him. He’s never sure.
The world got a lot of people in it, and when it comes to slaughter and famine, whether we’re to live or die, it don’t care much either way. The world got so many it don’t need to.
Somehow McNulty and Cole survive the Indian wars, but not without deep scars and their time fighting the Rebels during the Civil War presents them with many of the same moral dilemmas, especially when they come face-to-face with their enemies.
There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster.
And despite the ugly time period, the men form strong bonds with their commanders and fellow soldiers, for it is in battle that characters are formed. Bonds break, however, when unspeakable violence causes Barry’s characters to look out for themselves, the point at which the story changes from broad battles to personal struggles.
The only solace McNulty finds is in his deep love for Cole, and for Winona, their adopted Sioux orphan girl. The men in their camp and the people they meet later accept both Winona and their gay relationship, a surprisingly modern portrayal that represents one of the author’s important themes: acceptance. Through McNulty, Barry shows a complicated country of diverse backgrounds and cultures, trying only to survive, but willing to defend themselves to the death.
The end, despite violent and often hopeless events throughout the story, points to happier days, as McNulty reasons with optimism:
Life wants you to go down and suffer far as I can see. You gotta dance around all that.
McNulty’s character is a genius and eloquent storyteller, with poetic insights that explain love from all sides. I highly recommend this terrific book. While short (259 pages), you will not want to rush through it because Barry has carefully chosen every meaningful word.
I had not read anything by Sebastian Barry before this, but he is a well-known and highly respected Irish poet, playwright and novelist. He has won many awards, is a two-time Man Booker Prize finalist and has won the Costa Book of the Year prize for Days Without End (2016) as well as his 2005 novel, A Long Long Way.
On a side note, Barry relates that McNulty’s character was shaped by his teenage son, Toby, who recently came out as gay. Barry dedicated the book to Toby and says in an article from The Guardian (read here), “My son instructed me in the magic of gay life.”
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