Rough justice in mid C19 America

This is my review of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry.

After his immediate family’s death in the Potato Famine, John McNulty joins the wave of Irish immigrants into the US where soldiering seems the only option for him and his lifelong companion and secret lover, John Dole. In the 1850s, this means, of course, “routing out” the Indians to leave the land clear for European settlers. After a brief return to civilian life, inspired by “the true and proper love of country and the call of Mr. Lincoln”, the two men see no irony in joining up again to fight for an end to slavery in the Civil War of the 1860s. Yet McNulty realises that Indian Chief Caught-His-Horse-First and his people have received a raw deal from the Americans whose actions show they are mistaken in thinking themselves morally superior. “Indians ain’t vermin to be burned out of the seams of the coats of the world”.

At first, this novel seems to have a plot so slight it could be summarised in a paragraph, so that what sets it apart is partly the power of Sebastian Barry’s poetical prose – "winter was tightening her noose on the world…then the rains came walking over the land… making the grass seeds drunk with ambition…just before a thunderstorm, when the land draws in its chest and holds a limitless breath…" – layer upon layer of images. There is also his skill in sustaining a distinctive “voice” for his narrator John McNulty in the form of an ungrammatical but expressive stream of consciousness. In fact, when the story gears up to a final dramatic climax, it becomes clear that most of the previous characters and incidents are jigsaw pieces in a carefully constructed plot.

The first of many striking, visceral descriptions is the unexpected encounter with a herd of two or three thousand buffalo, the thrill and danger of catching a few for meat, and the exhilaration of preparing and eating it. “The knives opened the flesh like they were painting paintings of a new country, sheer plains of dark land, with the red rivers bursting their banks everywhere.. The Shawnees ate the lights raw. Their mouths were sinkholes of dark blood”. When this unflinching style is applied to the massacre of Indians, it becomes very hard to read. I can understand Sebastian Barry’s urge to test his creative writing skills to the limit in capturing the reality of brutal events, perhaps he is honouring the victims in the process, yet reading it feels almost obscene. I certainly felt oppressed by unrelenting sequence of violent bloodshed clearly in store.

This sensation is at least partly offset by John McNulty’s wry humour, his sensitive eye for the landscape and weather, his acute observations of the rapid changes in the way of life, all more vivid and evocative than a social history of the period: the experience of a stream train, “Something in perpetual explosion. Huge long muscle body on her and four big men punching coal into her boiler…..Here is new-fangled luxury I guess. We tear on through country would of took long wretched hours by horse, the train traversing it like a spooked buffalo”. Or the freed slaves working confidently by “Vast wharf-houses tall as hills…The boss man is black and the shouting roars out of black lungs. No whips like heretofore. I don’t know but this looks like to be better. Still…(we) don’t see one Indian face”.

In another of McNulty’s flashes of insight: “When that old Cromwell came to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for the good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise, I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work”.

Although the author manages to convey a good deal about his characters through what often seem like chance comments, and they are in general a realistic mixture of good and evil, apart from the impossibly perfect Indian girl Winona, the fragmented style at times makes them seem distant, two-dimensional, not arousing as much sympathy as they should. It may have been Barry’s intention, to portray people this way in an unstable world. Thus McNulty himself remarks towards the end. "I never think bad of John (Cole), just can't. I don't even truly know his nature. He's a perpetual stranger and I delight in that".

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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