In January, this novel won the Costa Book Award, one of Britain's most prestigious, making Irish writer Sebastian Barry the first person to win the award (previously known as the Whitbread) a second time in the novels category.
Small wonder, as Days Without End is itself a wonder, part western, part romance, part war novel, but at every turn humane and moving.
Thomas McNulty meets his beau, John Cole -- yes, you read that right -- in Missouri, under a hedge they've both crawled beneath to get out of the rain. "First moment I saw him I thought, there's a pal. … Thought he was a dandy-looking sort of boy."
They're in their early teens and have been wandering the country on their own. John is from New England and says his great-grandmother was an Indian. Thomas hails from Sligo in Ireland. He had stowed away on a ship to Canada after his parents and sister died in the potato famine.
After the rain stops, the boys go off together, and in the next town, there's a saloon with a sign saying, "Clean boys wanted." Seems the town lacks women, and the saloon-keeper has the idea of dressing up some boys as girls so they can dance with the miners:
They need only the illusion, only the illusion of the gentler sex. You're it, if you take this employment. It's just the dancing. … You won't hardly credit how nice, how gentle a rough miner dances. Make you cry to see it. You sure is pretty enough in your way ….
They take the job and do fine until nature takes the bloom off their rosy cheeks. Whereupon they up and enlist in the Army and do service in the Indian wars. They take to Army life as readily as they did to cross-dressing, even though "the only pay worse than the worst pay in America was army pay." And after their three years, as soon as the Civil War breaks out, they join up again.
A good many of these pages make for hard reading. John and Thomas even spend some time at Andersonville, the notorious Confederate POW camp. And Barry pulls no punches in depicting the pathos and slaughter of war and battle:
The wounded are making the noises of ill-butchered cattle. Throats have been slit but not entirely. There are gurgles and limbs held in agony, and many have stomach wounds that presage God-awful deaths. Then the moon rises quietly and throws down her long fingers of nearly useless light.
That juxtaposition of moonlight and mayhem is what makes a Barry novel different from any other: The discord of what is being told is almost resolved in the harmony of its telling.
And things aren't always so bad. Early on, during a parley with the Indians, John and Thomas share a kind of epiphany:
… with the ease of men who have rid themselves of worry, we strolled among the Indian tents and heard the sleeping babies and spied out … the braves dressed in the finery of squaws. John Cole gazes on them but he don't like to let his eyes linger too long in case he gives offense. But he's like the plough-horse that got the whins. All woken in a way I don't see before. … We move on, and he's just shaking like a cold child.
Later on, they will adopt an Indian girl. They name her Winona, and she becomes almost the centerpiece of their lives. They love her, and she loves them. As Thomas puts it, "I call her my daughter though I do know she ain't. … A daughter not a daughter, but who I mother as best I can. Ain't that the task in this wilderness of furious death?"
The miracle of Days Without End is how matter-of-factly the love John and Thomas have for each other is presented. It is never a distraction.
As with every Barry novel, notwithstanding the trials and doubts and misfortunes that afflict his characters -- and in this novel those are often hellacious, indeed -- a spirit of cheerful fortitude seems always to prevail. Barry sees the world's woes and man's sins clearly enough, but he never fails to discern and honor what Thomas calls "some strange instinct deep within that does rob from injustice a shard of love."