Last Week’s Reading, Irish Edition: May 14-20

Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry: I’m not sure what I was expecting when I heard that noted Irish author Sebastian Barry’s new book was set in the American West, but it wasn’t Days Without End. The narrator, a member of Mr. Barry’s McNulty family, is Thomas, who escapes the brutal famine of Sligo only to find more violence and pain as a soldier, first fighting the Sioux in the West and then other Irish boys (but in gray) in the South. Though not immune to the toll of the carnage, Thomas tends to accept it as the way of the world. So too he accepts his love for John Cole, whom he met when they were half-starved boys. Together they care for Winona, a Sioux girl kidnapped after an army raid, trying to keep their small family afloat against terrible odds. Thomas’s narration is dreamlike and yet precise, ungrammatical and yet boasting an astounding vocabulary (“Empurpled rapturous hills I guess and the long day by brushstroke enfeebling into darkness and then the fires blooming on the pitch plains.”).  It’s not perfect, but Days Without End is a bold, fearsome beauty of a book. Highly recommended.

Ballyturk, by Enda Walsh: I’ve had this play on my shelf for awhile, and I figured a dip out of my comfort zone would do me good. Ballyturk, which is about two men confined in a room and the worlds and rituals they construct for themselves, is one of those plays that I suspect is more dynamic in performance than in print. It’s quite odd in the beginning, though things (mostly) start to make sense near the end. One character has a long, lovely speech that made me wish the whole play had been written in that mode, rather than tending toward the absurdist—or maybe I wished I were reading a novel in that key. Anyway, I know I’m being rather vague here but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who might see it in performance. Beckett fans, this might be of interest.

Recommended Reading: The Temporary Gentleman, by Sebastian Barry

photo (75)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.