Irish author Sebastian Barry was recently interviewed about this book on the BBC TV programme Talking of Books, and this prompted my purchase.
Set in mid-19th century America, it’s about two young Irish immigrants who, having lost absolutely everything in the Great Famine, become soldiers together, fighting in wars against the Native American tribes, and in the American the Civil War.
Barry’s punctuation is parsimonious, making for smooth narration by principal protagonist Thomas McNulty, the elder of the two. This liberation from formal writing procedures allows for modulation of pace – at times flowing smoothly, and at others dramatically rapid. In both cases the reader is in turn liberated from tedious superfluous explanation.
Thomas’s discourse is entirely in a quirky Yankee-Irish dialect, including poor grammar, colourful colloquialisms and picturesque blasphemy. Far from offending the reader, it renders the characters’ experiences all the more real. The impression is of the simple minds of soldiers in the field, intent only upon physical and emotional survival. But Thomas’s descriptions are vivid, and his insights intelligent; it is only illiteracy that makes him and his beloved John Cole appear artless. We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.
A female is introduced – a young Native American girl whom the comrades rescue from the conflict, name Winona, give a home, and cherish. Her resilience in the face of adversity – near-starvation, racism, and the loss of her entire family and tribe – is magnificent.
In spite of the protagonists’ apparent simplicity, serious themes are introduced: the pointlessness and stupidity of war, xenophobia (against the Native Americans and the Irish), that many of the boys fighting are only doing so for the money in order to survive, and that most of them have no idea for what they are even fighting – namely the retention or abolition of slavery. National and personal identity are also significant issues: How we were able to see slaughter without flinching; Because we were nothing ourselves to begin with…that’s because we were thought worthless. Nothing people. I guess that’s what it was. That thinking just burns through your brain for a while. Nothing but scum.
I noticed resonances with Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), published over a century earlier, in themes such as facing up to the enemy (often fellow Irish immigrants) and the demonic courage required to do so, the urge to flee, and the substance of pure animalistic fear.
There are delightful moments of innovative poetic writing in this book: A mealy-mouthed moon half rises and dimly burns; Then the ground rising to the fringes of a forest and the dark green acres then and then heaped up high the black mountains and the haircuts of snow on top; Poor ruined lengths of paltry men; the soupy night; The world is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicory drinking and whiskey and cards.
The homosexual relationship between Thomas and John Cole is subtly treated, and their love for Winona. The paramount themes emerge as comradeship, love, and resilience.