The cover of Sebastian Barry’s latest novel, Days Without End, has a rather beautiful image showing a rainbow of colours emerging in the mist as sunlight strikes a high waterfall. It’s not, at first glance, an obvious way to illustrate a novel about a soldier’s life amid America’s brutal Indian wars in the mid-19th century, but then the book is itself an unexpected combination of elements, in a way that apparently took even the author himself by surprise.
The protagonist and narrator is Thomas McNulty, orphaned during Ireland’s Great Famine, who takes the dangerous sea voyage to Canada and starts out on a new life in America while still just a boy. After meeting another young wanderer, John Cole, the two find ways to survive together, first as boy dancers playing the part of young women to entertain love-starved miners, and later travelling as soldiers on the Oregon Trail from Missouri, amid battles with the Sioux.
Barry says the novel travelled in a very different direction to the one he had begun with. He first spent nine months writing a long chapter about the famine in Ireland, and he thought that the book would be “very, very dark”. But then he found himself cutting that chapter down to just a page and a half, and wondering what was going to come next. “Wonderfully, out of that private box of miracles that is a writer’s life, I just wrote that sentence [that now opens the book]: ‘The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.’
“The whole damn book was just lying in behind that sentence,” he says. There followed “four or five joyous months where, for once in a decade, you are going down to your work room like a 22-year-old instead of a 61-year-old, and being very surprised.” Because Days Without End is, against all probabilities, a story more about happiness than tragedy and the opening sentence conveys the buoyancy of its narrator. Thomas’ life may be brutal, scarred by the trauma of his death-laden voyage from Ireland; the soldiers kill and are killed; the slaughter of the Native Americans is relentlessly cruel; there is frostbite, gangrene and starvation. Yet in spite of all of that there is, for Thomas, the energy and blitheness of youth, the adventure of this vast and fascinating new land, the beauty of the open landscapes. And there is young love—and for Thomas, that is with John Cole.
Thomas and John are quietly, unambiguously, a couple, without guilt or question. What’s more, in the intervals between soldiering, Thomas earns his crust as a cross-dressing performer, creating the persona of a beautiful woman on the stage. The couple even create their own unconventional family, with a Native American girl, Winona, plucked from the slaughter.
The book is dedicated to Barry’s son, Toby. “My beautiful son came out as gay a few years ago,” he explains. “This young man, very beautiful, incredibly gifted, really lovely, gay. After a couple of years of misery, he said, ‘Dad, I’m gay’, and I said, ‘Thank God, you can avoid all that heterosexual nightmare I’ve been through!’ And you know, he’s got a lovely boyfriend he’s devoted to, and I’m looking at that like a disinterested observer of human nature and I’m thinking, ‘This is not something that needs our tolerance, this is something we should be tending towards. There is a magnificence here of soul’. And I suppose all that feeds into Thomas and John.”
Reading for the novel, he also learned “all this stuff I’d never been privy to, such as how it wasn’t really until psychoanalysts started putting names on things that [being gay] was a problem in America. Lads in the army and navy, they just got on with it. And that feeling of it just being a sort of normality before some blasted scientist got tricky with the language was very liberating.”
But reading the history of the Native Americans meant “you’d be suddenly be rocking back in your chair at the sheer intolerance and brutality of it all, those moments that kept arising, where people went through a process of tolerance and then there would come this terrible order: ‘Kill them all’. There are many moments in Irish history that we just hurry past, because they are far too horrible. This is a moment that I don’t imagine Americans dwell on so much either. And the amount of guns in American history…it’s built on this extraordinary rule of guns.
“There’s a wonderful book called The Oregon Trail by a Harvard undergraduate [Francis Parkman] who went west in the 1840s and ‘50s, and when he came to write about it, he said: ‘What I’m writing about no longer exists, everywhere there are towns and cities now.’ And you suddenly get this sense of America as a business enterprise. The Native Americans were certainly there many thousands of years; these guys are the geniuses of America. All that removed, the people, the landscapes and the spirit of the place, the rapture of the landscape, both in the sense of ‘beauty’ and ‘being seized’. Something immense was lost, not quite in our lifetime but in the lifetime of our grandparents. It’s terrifying, but also so fascinating that human groups have these impulses.”
But inside that there were people such as Thomas and John, “just trying to make lives, a family life”, open to happiness. Barry offers an example: “I read this little first-hand account that a very ordinary man had written, a plasterer, who had just gone around the East Coast, plastering and getting plastered. He was part of a gang of fellows who would go out in the evenings for sport to the Irish district and have a big punch-up. But it wasn’t written as guilty or racist, it was joyously written.”
He concludes: “Some books just want to take you out to the back of the theatre and beat the living daylights out of you. They just don’t want to be. My poor old grandfather, who I wrote about in The Temporary Gentleman, he didn’t want anything to do with it whatsoever. But these boys don’t care: Thomas had something to say, he had been in the days without end, ‘this is what happened and we were happy there’.”
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Formats: EB (£12.99)/HB (£17.99)
Editor: Angus Cargill
Agent: Derek Johns
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 12th August 2016.