A magnificent, heartfelt left-of-centre novel by one of Ireland’s best, Days Without End is a compassionate narrative set in mid-19th century US where two best friends, signing up for the army, find themselves in the midst of the Indian Wars and, just a few years later, the Civil War.
Impoverished teenage drifter Thomas McNulty, survivor of the Irish Famine, the horrors of the Atlantic crossing to Canada and the aimless wanderings of survival (from Quebec to Missouri) meets an equally destitute John Cole, three years his senior. They join forces, two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world – and from an early age, become lovers.
A slight and pretty young thing, McNulty secures the two work as prairie fairies, adolescent boys dressed as girls to dance with clients in the rough, men-only mining town of Daggsville. For three years, the two survive surprisingly unmolested – there was never a moment of unwelcome movements… But nature will have his way and bit by bit the bloom wore off us, and we was more like boys than girls, more like men than women, and soon we were going to be just memories of diamonds in Daggsville.
And so to the US Army the two enlist and a horseback journey from Missouri to California. It’s an exhausting journey of deprivation, hunger, fever and death as well as fear. This is Indian country. And it soon becomes clear they are being sent west to protect the new European settlers of northern California.
Both epic and intimate, Days Without End is as grand and harrowing as the landscapes they cross. Left awestruck by the natural beauty of their surrounds, the unit is also laid low by the violence and conflicts that leave men making the noises of ill-butchered cattle as both indigenous Oglala Sioux and European settlers look to retain/stake a claim on the land. Hunger drives both ‘sides’ to extremes as the natural environmental balance is upset by migrants flocking from the east. It’s a brutal period – mirrored only a few years later by the horrors of the civil war.
Yet, Days Without End is not purely western or a civil war tale. Its lyrical beauty and poetic prose is a narrative of truth and understanding in amongst the brutality and deprivation of war. McNulty and Cole’s love for each other blooms – in the northern Californian plains, the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville, or treading the boards in Grand Rapids ‘between wars’. Where there’s life, there’s hope seems to be Barry’s message. It’s a captivating, remarkable novel that any attempt to describe in detail is bound in failure. Inexplicably, having been long listed for the 2017 Booker Prize, Days Without End failed to make the shortlist of six and which saw George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo win the award.