Days Without End
Early in Sebastian Barry’s magnificent and boundless novel, Days Without End, young Thomas McNulty flees Ireland’s Great Famine: “I was among the destitute, the ruined, the starving. . . . We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away everything you are.” He was escaping a homeland under the heel of occupation, having watched every member of his family die, all while Great Britain continued to export agricultural plenty from the green fields of Ireland. One out of eight million Irish starved to death, and two million Irish were forced to abandon their country for unfriendly, foreign shores.
It’s with this outsider point-of-view that Thomas finds himself narrating one of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history, both the years of American imperialist expansionism and the Civil War.
Thomas, having witnessed one vast human act of indifference, soon finds himself an agent of a similar, almost genocidal injustice: He joins the United States Army at a time when soldiering was too often used to rid the West of Native American Indians.
Fellow immigrants seem to make up the bulk of this rag tag army, men who have “seen already the death of their world and now asking pardon of the Fates so that they can fight for a new one.” These men are derided for their accents and strange customs, and their military superiors take it for granted that they will slaughter, as well as be slaughtered, without question.
But there is a wild exhilaration in Thomas’ soldiering life. The ill-fitting uniforms and terrible food, the forts that fatally flood, and the cold that frostbites, do not overshadow the camaraderie, the card games, and the drunken feasts that create a new strain of patriotism, a loyalty to each other greater than any loyalty to a distinctly un-United States of America.
Viewed as a soldier’s story, Days Without End is strikingly different from current American war literature. Thomas, though poetic and kind hearted, is no guilt ridden, self-tortured man irrevocably harmed by the atrocities he’s committed. Nor does he justify his action with rousing speeches. The novel is all the more devastating and slyly brilliant for it. We want our soldiers damaged. We like to think that someone who has killed inevitably contains a dying part inside of himself. If a character is likable or good, we want to see his dark deeds haunt, and therefore redeem, allowing the reader to feel empathy, allowing the reader to forgive.
Fortunately that’s not the way it plays out in this novel.
Thomas and his fellow Union soldiers are ordinary men, but are capable of bayoneting women and children. Yet in a refreshing change from what has become convention, they do not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder afterward, or if they do, Barry does not dwell on it. They continue on. They appreciate beauty, they work farms, they start families, they are just happy to be alive. They might not be proud of their deeds but they accept their pasts. The one thing Thomas and his friends have in common is the belief that they have done what they needed to do in a brutal world that tried, over and over again, to kill them.
“Just surviving is the victory,” Thomas says. “That human will. It ain’t so rare. But it is the best of us.”
The powerful narration of Days Without End propels the reader through both the galloping days of battle as well as the bedraggled and frozen-footed marches of long winters. It’s the unforgettable voice of Thomas on the very first page that seizes the reader and does not let go; everything he recounts is laced with a charming, melodic irreverence that somehow manages to take the darkness of his story and infuse it with light.
When the fighting is done, Thomas McNulty and Handsome John Cole work a tobacco farm and cobble together an oddly perfect family: another grizzled soldier, an Indian girl whose parents Thomas and John helped kill, and two freed slaves. Thomas finds bounty in this unlikely union, and though there is no promise that his future will be easy, there is a taste of peace. After all of the devastation that has come before, the Irish immigrant has found his warm hearth, his home, and his American dream.