Days Without End

An extraordinary feat, in which Barry fully conjures the brutality, bloodshed, and iniquities of the American Civil War without sermonizing or lecturing to the reader. Barry’s unlikely narrator is Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who meets 14-year-old John Cole “under a hedge in goddamn Missouri”; the two quickly find work as female impersonators in a small-town saloon with a shortage of available women. Once he slips into a dress, McNulty experiences an epiphany: “All miseries and worries fell away.” he says. “I was a new man now, a new girl. I was freed like those slaves were freed in the coming war. I was ready for anything. I felt dainty, strong, and perfected.” And so Thomas becomes Thomasina, at least intermittently, between bloody battles alongside his comrade — and beau — John Cole. It’s a masterstroke to place this story of self-discovery within the context of the United State’s formative years, and Barry never allows McNulty to turn into a cliche; the novel’s heart-stopping scenes of savagery are all the more disconcerting for the eager role McNulty often plays in them. Although he becomes war-weary by the novel’s end, he never disowns the army, or the pleasure he took from being a soldier, but he and Cole also show an enormous capacity for compassion, both to one another, but more particularly in the way they form a family with a young Native America child, Winona, who they bring up as their own. That, too, illuminates bigger ethical questions, not least given the role the two men, and the army they served, played in murdering and displacing Winona’s family. It’s all a terrible and bloody mess, with moments of sheer beauty.

— Aaron Hicklin, One Grand Books