cover image Days Without End

Days Without End

Sebastian Barry. Viking, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-525-42736-0

Barry’s (The Secret Scripture) latest novel features Irish orphan boy Thomas McNulty, who departs Sligo during the potato famine to make his way to America. On the Missouri frontier, Thomas and best buddy John Cole work in a saloon dressing up as female dancing partners for local miners. When the boys mature enough to look more like men, they enlist in the Army, ending up as soldiers in the brutal Indian Wars while secret lovers at night. After their tour of duty ends, they head to Grand Rapids, where they perform onstage in drag, accompanied by Winona, a nine-year-old Sioux they care for like a daughter. With the Civil War looming, Thomas and John Cole join the Union Army, only to encounter more suffering and senseless violence fighting in the Valley of Virginia, then as prisoners of war at Andersonville. Eventually they are freed, but the past catches up: Winona’s uncle, Catch-His-Horse-First , wants her back. Barry’s description of Thomas’s courageous effort to protect Winona achieves the drama and pathos of the author’s best fiction. Other parts of the novel prove erratic. Despite moments of humor and colorful metaphors, Thomas’s inconsistent, occasionally unconvincing narrative voice wavers between lyricism and earthiness. Thomas’s trail of woe, though historically accurate, makes for onerous reading. The explicit battle scenes may also be difficult to take, but they have energy and intensity, in contrast with Thomas and John’s love story, which traces without much drama how Thomas comes to realize he prefers dresses to a uniform. (Jan.)