The first thing you know about this work is the person, the narrator. Thomas McNulty is seventeen and has escaped the Irish famine to find himself in the wilds of the American west, not for fame and fortune, just a life. Barry has been mining the lives of the McNulty family for inspiration for many of his works, plays and novels; but what stands out in this book is Barry’s close writing: sometimes more academically called free indirect discourse, the use of language that the character might use when speaking; and he is speaking, speaking directly to the reader in the first person. The words – like ‘knowed’ instead of knew, ‘drear’ instead of dreary, ‘swole’ instead of swollen; the punctuation – nothing fancier than a comma or full stop; and the grammar – double negatives and wrong articles, all help to paint a picture of this boy. Uneducated, naïve, but smart, observant and handsome; no, not handsome, young Thomas is pretty. It is John Cole who is handsome, ‘handsome John Cole’ he is called. They meet in the wilds of Missouri, Thomas seeks shelter from a rain-storm in a hedge and there he is, handsome John Cole.
Their relationship is tender, romantic, sexual, and strong and is at the core of the book. There is hardly any descriptive detail about this partnership, no pink-rosed romance or comfortable sex; it’s just like the scenery, the killing, the survival, it’s just there.
And there is a lot of killing. The two boys get enlisted into the army and take part in the Indian Wars and then the Civil War. There is murder, mayhem, scalpings, scrotums removed to be dried out for bakky pouches, vaginas pinned on hats, children hacked, heads blown off Confederate soldiers not men yet; and all described with the plane observation and simple descriptive language gleaned from Thomas McNulty’s short little life, like he describes the glorious sunsets and the mountains ‘as black as burnt bread’ in the lands that don’t have names yet.
When the boys aren’t killing Indians or gray-boys they are play-acting to earn a dollar. First in a prairie hotel, they don frilly dresses and dance with the miners to offer a bit of pseudo-female company. No hanky-panky mind, just dancin’ and polite conversation including drunken but demure marriage proposals that are gently refused; and later in a grown-up theatre where Thomas sings romantic ballads in makeup and a dress to make grown men cry. Eventually Thomas and John and their adopted ‘daughter’ Winona, an Indian child saved from a bullet by Thomas’s quick thinking, settle down in post-war Tennessee growing tobacco. However, Thomas’s past deeds catch up with him and a happy ending is in doubt. No spoilers here.
But it’s Barry’s writing that is the star. You feel the need to re-read sentences and passages, the joy and innocence of them is captivating. Here is his description of the Major’s new wife:
There’s something sleek about her, like a trout moving through water. Her hair is glossy as pine-needles, pitch black, and she wears a diamond-spangled net over it, like she was ready for business. She carries one of those new Colt guns in her belt. She’s better armed than we are. Guess we think Mrs Neale is top-notch alright. It warms my heart to see how much she is kind to the major. They link arms about the place and she talks like a geyser. Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop.
The book is dedicated to his son, Toby:
“Years ago, when he was 16 and I was doing the reading for this book, Toby was very unhappy, and when a young man is unhappy we must take note. I was desperately trying to find out what was wrong, but you can’t ask him directly. You have to be a sleuth, a kind of Sherlock Holmes of his unhappiness … Then one morning he came into our bedroom and said, ‘The thing is Dad, I’m gay.’ I can’t describe to you the immense sense of relief and freedom in the very speaking of the words. His unhappiness fell away, my unhappiness fell away, and from that moment on we entered into this extraordinary period where he was instructing me in the magic of gay life … I was very impressed by the subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend. People talk about tolerance, but it’s not really about tolerance. It should also be about emulation and reverence and learning from.”
Barry won the Costa Award, for an unprecedented second time, with Days Without End; it is also long-listed for the current Man-Booker Prize. The winner will be announced in October.
This is an unsentimental work full of violence but anchored by deep love and commitment that is all the more powerful for its simple existence and unwavering certainty.
You can purchase the book in various formats here.