How did it come about that an Irishman, Sebastian Barry, has written one of the most illuminating and moving recent novels about America—and nineteenth-century America at that? And what odds would you have given that it would be published in the United States within weeks of that other superb novel set in the same period: George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo? (Please don’t tell me that the novel is dead.)
Days Without End is Barry’s eighth novel, a number that includes an early, ambitious, and pretentious Joycean effort called The Engine of Owl-Light, which is unavailable and which you can safely ignore. Every one of his other novels is luminous. Not one of them sounds like anyone else. In Britain, he’s a major figure—he’s twice won the Costa (previously Whitbread) Book Award, not only for best novel but also for Book of the Year, the only novelist to be so honored. Two of his books have been shortlisted for the Booker; two have won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. His reviews are almost unanimously rapturous. In America they’re equally splendid—and have been mostly ignored; he has ardent admirers here but remains relatively unknown, although he’s traveled and taught in America and knows it well.
This should change with Days Without End, a book of such feeling, charm, persuasiveness, and suspense that Barry’s American audience will surely swell. Who could resist the voice of its narrator, young Thomas McNulty, who has escaped famine-struck Ireland, his family dead of starvation, in one of the notorious “coffin ships” that carried hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants to America in pre–Civil War days? Those ships were hell, and for many of the new Americans, life here was hell too. Thomas, blundering across the country, desperate for any kind of work, finds himself in Missouri—alone, in rags, and hungry. Ducking under a hedge in a sudden downpour, he runs into another untethered boy: Handsome John Cole, as Thomas likes to refer to him. Thomas is about fifteen but “wren-sized”; John is a year or two younger but tall. From that first moment, they belong to each other.
Together they head out, ready to take on any menial job, however degrading, that they may stumble upon. They find themselves in a small mining town, hired by a well-intentioned saloon owner to dress up as girls and dance (and only dance) with the miners in a place where there are no women to speak of. Thomas is completely comfortable in his new garb and in this role, until he and John just can’t hide their boyness any longer and are back on the road. As for their sexuality, it’s dealt with in one astonishing sentence, dropped into the narrative so casually that it’s as natural as it is shocking: “And then…
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