Jack McNulty, the title character of Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman* is a man pursued by regret and bewildered by his own self-deception.
In the novel’s first pages, Jack describes his dramatic first entrance into Accra during the Second World War, from his vantage point more than ten years later in the same city, now changed with time and the advent of independence from British rule. It is 1957, and Jack has decided that he must come to grips with his own life — its many unusual occurrences, its current aimless state, and its one great love, Mai Kirwan.
Jack and Mai meet in Sligo just as Ireland is acclimating to the end of British rule (just one of several parallels between Ireland and Ghana in the novel); Mai is beautiful, educated, and rather too good for Jack, as it seems to some. Their life together is tempestuous, marred by alcoholism in particular. It is not a happy tale; Jack’s story, told haltingly, is the story of how it all went wrong.
The Temporary Gentlemanis a melancholy, quiet novel; Mr. Barry is more than adept at conjuring up the atmosphere in Accra during the rainy season or Sligo, too, in the rain: “After the picture we stepped out on vulnerable leather soles into a street that was flooded by a savage temper tantrum of summer rain, a great, moving varnish of glistening black” (37).
It’s a novel to be savored for its lyrical passages — including a virtuoso sentence, nearly three pages long, which describes a German bomb hitting an RAF camp — and its keen probing of the human condition. There is blame, yes, but there’s also love, even for someone as frail, as difficult, as unseeingly observant as Jack.
This is my favorite passage, I think, one that gives you a sense of the novel’s tone:
But of course it is all long ago, and a hundred different fates and stories have swallowed up my comrades, as my own fate has swallowed me. We are in the great belly of the whale of what happens, we mistook the darkness for a pleasant night-time, and the phosphorescent plankton swimming there for stars. (59)
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.