- "The Seam of Something Else Unnamed"Sebastian Barry's Days Without End
"Who are you?"
"That's a good question"
—Pat Garrett to Alias in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Prize-winning Irish novelist Sebastian Barry has referred to himself as a "placeless listener" (O'Rourke), gathering stories from the genealogical depths of his own family and those scattered, diasporic histories of his country's people spread across the globe. For Days Without End (2016) the seed of the narrative, "a scrap, a tiny tiny echo," as he termed it, was the story of his great-uncle whom he once heard had fought in the Indian Wars in America (Evans 2017). Alongside this, Barry grew up at a time when "the true mythology of [his] generation would be John Ford's films or 'B' movies or even 'Z' movie westerns" (Lea), creating a fertile mixture of familial and cultural myths from which the novel slowly emerged. Days Without End surprises with its exploration of male-to-male love within a broader canvas of the rapid development of the American West as a space of conquest and opportunity for some and hideous tragedy for others. Central to the novel is the irony of the Irish involvement in the Indian Wars or, as Barry defines his main protagonist's, Thomas McNulty's, role, "dispossessing people like his own people" (Lea). Such ironies and kinks in the history and myth of the West are critically important to the novel's extraordinarily poetic investigation of racial and gendered identity, survival, loss, and, ultimately, of the hopeful possibility of love and community.
Zeese Papanikolas traces how any hope of finding new formations [End Page 231] of life beyond the boundaries defined by cultural politics, ethnic fear, and powerful mythology were lost early in American history, with any notions of hybrid identity or equitable living with others in the West being swiftly ridiculed or denigrated, such as that displayed in Washington Irving's Astoria, where Irving wrote of the
new and mongrel races, like new formations in geology, the amalgamation of the "debris" and "abrasions" of former races, civilized and savage, the remains of broken and almost extinguished tribes; the descendants of wandering hunters and trappers; of fugitives from the Spanish and American frontiers; of adventurers and desperadoes of every class and country, yearly ejected from the bosom of society into the wilderness.(qtd. in Papanikolas 14)
In Days Without End Sebastian Barry explores a similar sense of loss while imagining a more positive "shadow" world of presence, an alternative history, that conjures up a fugitive community, "like new formations in geology" made up of human "abrasions" and "remains" existing at the very edge of the official dream of the frontier West.1 The novel imagines and performs the West and America differently, offering up the "nascent possibility" of a "seam of something else unnamed" (Lea; Barry 90) from within this "debris" of unclaimed and hidden histories, amid "sites of definitional creation, violence, and rupture" (Sedgwick, Epistemology 3). At its heart is the story of Thomas McNulty, a poor Irish immigrant thrown into America after escaping the "famishing" in the Ireland of the 1840s and quickly discovering, as Noel Ignatiev puts it, "while the white skin made the Irish eligible for membership in the white race, it did not guarantee their admission; they had to earn it" (59). McNulty's is the tale of a "jettisoned life" (Butler and Spivak 40) trying to "earn" some place in America, and, at one level, as the narrator thinks at the novel's end, it is the story of "how he came to be an American and of everything put against him that he pushed aside" (Barry 244). Central to what he "pushed aside" is his struggle to survive at all costs in this New World as poor, Irish, and homosexual in a fiercely heterosexual, racist country where performing onstage as a woman [End Page 232] or being a soldier fighting Indians were contrasting ways to feed oneself in such an unforgiving place. In taking this approach, Barry renders the West differently, adding to it the complicated histories that result when one "turns backgrounds into...