This novel belongs to the Stiff Drink school of writing. You adopt your voice, you start in the middle of things and you keep going until, ninety thousand words later, you bring it all to a close. You provide the reader with no more than a small geographical map of Civil War America and you offer no Acknowledgements to anyone for anything. I guess when it’s all over, you pour another stiff drink.
So you begin with the sentence, “The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake” and, starting from that, introduce your two main characters, John Cole and the narrator Thomas McNulty – who start out as two teenage boys saving themselves from famine and disease, lost in the frontiers of frontier America. They make shift as improvising stage artists, join the army to fight the Indians, join again to fight the Confederate rebels and along the way of killing for their supper, acquire a child - an orphaned Indian Sioux to whom they give the name, Winona.
Winona is not much more than a cypher. She is young, traumatised, pretty, clever and determined. In a world which has not yet replaced brute force with bureaucracy, she easily becomes their daughter and more precious to John and Thomas than their own lives. The reader is led to agree. Nothing bad must happen to Winona, absolutely nothing.
On this foundation, Sebastian Barry is able to carry off John and Thomas as gay men and Thomas as a cross-dresser when opportunity demands and with a taste for continuing that way anyway. In a society no more regulated by convention than bureaucracy, John and Thomas also carry off their difference, indulged by the black members of the household they eventually join, and enjoying Winona’s uncurious love.
Inevitably, there is a whiff of opportunism in this gay men and cross dresser casting but the Stiff Drink approach allows Sebastian Barry to carry it off. But not only that; it is the rootedness of a story of violence and suffering in some very simple values which carries us along. At one point, I felt that all was revealed when at page 136, John occupies himself trying to soothe a restless, troubled Winona to sleep. He succeeds. “Got her sleeping” he says, “You sure do” says Thomas and adds for the reader one of his short, characteristic lines of laconic wisdom, “Not much more than that needed to make men happy”. All’s well in a world where grown men can soothe troubled children to sleep. If they can do that, who’s gonna care if they’re gay?