Days without End
There’s something weird beyond belief about Sebastian Barry. He conjures up a world of very contemporary queerness (cross-dressing, gay maritals) and then casts it, with some degree of laconic historical verisimilitude, in the 19th-century Wild West. Realism and the conventions of narrative probability barely get a look in with this ragged decorative story about two guys who are in love with each other and who endure performing a female impersonation act as boys, the Indian wars, the American Civil War and Reconstruction all through the murky Guinness-dark glass of Barry’s prose poetry.
It’s a preposterous cod Irish conundrum of a prose style with which Barry assails the reader, full of staid and steamy beauties and banalities of the starkest kind.
The style of buggery and begorrah is the kind of blarney that drove Beckett to write in French as a purgative exercise, and it is made to encompass mutilations and massacres and heartbreaks as these two dirt-poor boys witness a world of blood and dreck and horror with nothing to hold on to but their passion for each other and their love of their adoptive native American daughter.
Barry’s circumambient detail is ugly-ugly in a way that clearly inverts the pretty-pretty and represents the same kind of sentimentalism. Noses are lopped off, genitalia ripped out, but the same wan sun shines on the self-conscious splendour and stoicism of the prose.
The plot is a garbled mouthful that mutters and mangles the idea of the picaresque. It’s the art of the monologue that’s modulating this story and it is written in a concocted no-man’s language as Moby-Dick and The Crucible are, though with rather less art. The wonder is that this apparently shapeless narrative with its naive narrator and constant recourse to oral summary rather than representation is in the end moving and weird and full of feeling, that the author succeeds in creating a sense of drama and a heightened poignancy in this saga of common folk who are in fact as strange as the stars.
Sebastian Barry has written a cut-price epic in a cut-price rhetoric but these characters do lie stretched out in the dirt and cry tears down. Days without End is a pretentious novel full of windy rhetorical bravura but somehow Barry has the courage of his pretensions and the reader feels humbled by the way the emotion shines through the dress-ups. QSS
Faber, 272pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 29, 2016 as "Sebastian Barry, Days without End". Subscribe here.