Passing Time in “Days Without End,” Sebastian Barry

Days Without End is the latest novel by Sebastian Barry which just recently won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year.

It is beautiful, lyrical, and both intimate and vast in its scope, narrated by Thomas McNulty at the tail end of his life in the nascent United States. He emigrated there in his teens to escape the famine in Ireland and was plunged into the growing pains of the new nation. Through him the reader experiences the tumult of history as well as the stunning beauty and callous savagery of the landscape, which is as much a character in the novel as any of the people.

The heart of the story is McNulty’s gorgeous, lifelong love affair with John Cole, a young teenager he first meets sheltering under a hedge in the middle of a Missouri downpour. Together they become female impersonators, dancing chastely with miners in a saloon in a frontier town. They share a life of adventure, danger and hardship, but also a life of love and commitment to one another that survives the perils of war and the challenge of growing old together. Theirs is a relationship of gentleness, bravery and grace in the midst of great brutality and cruelty.

Perhaps more than anything else it is a novel about time. Like so many when they’re young, time was not something worth paying attention to; it stretched long and endless before them.

“Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending,” writes McNulty, looking back on his young years,

“but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment…You look back on all the years when you never had that thought… I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now. I am wondering what words we said so carelessly that night, what vigorous nonsense we spoke, what drunken words we shouted, what stupid joy there was in that, and how John Cole was only young then and as handsome as any person that has ever lived. Young, and there would never be a change for that. The heart rising, and the soul singing. Fully alive in life and content as the house-martins under the eves of the house.”

I am round about the age now that McNulty is when he narrates his story, and oh how melancholy and beautiful those words are. But as I look on my own children, almost the age McNulty and Cole were in the events described above, I’m not sure I would want anything different for them. To be oblivious to the coming ravages of time, to feel invincible, to live extravagantly and fully alive. There is time enough to be aware of frailty and the breakneck flight of the days, weeks, months and years that make up a life. Elsewhere he writes,

“Things just go on. Lot of life is just like that. I look back over fifty years of life and I wonder where the years went. I guess they went like that without me noticing much. A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands. Can’t do much about that. We have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards.”

The novel is a reminder not to waste the store of days we have been given. Even if the thousands only amount to one hundred clear memories there is value in that. But better to fill each day, to notice and pay attention to its passing, to establish rhythm and ritual to mark the passing and the changes. “Things that give you heart are rare enough,” says McNulty, “better to note them in your head when you find them and not forget.”

Days Without End is a generous book full of generous and sometimes cruel characters lit up by Thomas’s love for John. For most of the book McNulty’s partner is given his full name, John Cole, almost as if for the span of his life Thomas McNulty cannot believe he has found someone and loved someone so completely and found that love reciprocated so fully. John Cole is a wonder to him who deserves a title more than a mere name. Listen to how he describes him,

“Like when you fumbling about in the darkness and you light a lamp and the light come up and rescue things. Objects in a room and the face of a man who seem a dug-up treasure to you. John Cole. Seems a food. Bread of earth. The lamplight touching his eyes and another light answering.”

Learning to notice the ordinary things of his life and his days is Thomas McNulty’s wisdom. Everything, from a good horse to hard farm labour is to be received as blessing,

“So I ride into town. The little bay horse goes along nicely. She got the best walk of any horse I ever owned. Just clipping along with a tack-tack-tack on the dry earth. Sweet life. I was sore in love with all my labouring in Tennessee. Liked well that life. Up with the cockcrow, bed with the dark. Going along like that could never end. And when ending it would be felt to be just. You had your term. All that stint of daily life we sometimes spit on it like it was something waste. But it all there is and in it is enough. I do believe so. John Cole, John Cole, Handsome John Cole. Winona. Old good-man Lige. Tennyson and Rosalee. This lithesome bay. Home. Our riches. All I owned. Enough.”

There is an innocence in McNulty that survives the hardships of the famine ship, of winter on the plains, of the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Together McNulty and Cole face villains and murderers and cheaters, make lasting friendships and enjoy the loyalty of all classes and creeds. The story is full of those whose bodies have been marked and scarred and depleted by the cruelty and adversity of life. But at the end McNulty’s spirit is undefeated. He receives what he has with the simplicity of a child and he is all the richer for it, whatever life brings.

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