Reading: “Days Without End” and “The End of Eddy”

Days Without End, Sebastian Barry, Hardcover, 259pp, January 2017, Viking and The End Of Eddy, Edouard Louis, translated from the French by Michael Lucey, Hardcover, 208pp, May 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

There comes a certain responsibility when one is the 46,000th (almost) most popular reviewer on Amazon.com as well as being in the bottom two per cent (almost) of most visited of the 3 million (or more) blog posts daily clogging the virtual world, not to mention having two thirds (almost) of the average number of Twitter followers, many (almost) of whom have not muted me (yet) and a few (almost) of whom find my Tweets and my blog posts to be interesting/amusing (almost) — such media penetration combined with so large and loyal (almost) a following weighs heavily on me as I resist my genetic otiosity, force myself off the couch and skivvy my way through crafting my thoughts and feelings about what I’ve read into cogent (not even almost) essays which are honest — so as to fulfill my duty to the reader, and respectful — so as to recognize the efforts of the writer, for there are few people in the world I respect more than those who give us the gift of words shaped into story; and all of this I do for no remuneration or profit (in fact, I incur debt in the effort), because I love reading and writers and my many (if by many one means hardly any) followers.

All of which is circumlocutory procrastination because I have spent two three four five days unsuccessfully trying to figure out what I really feel and mean to say about these two books which I coincidentally read back to back and which have everything and yet nothing in common.

Don’t be misled by the Albert Bierstadt cover painting; this novel takes place on the Western frontier, but it is not a Western.

Days Without End was recommended to me and so I got it from the library. Once gotten, however, I could not recall who had suggested it and I was so put off by the cover-art and jacket copy (both of which turned out to be very poor predictors of what the book was about), I kept moving it to the bottom of my stack and was considering returning it without reading.

Then, I finished Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible [click here], which I five-star-plus adored, and I knew from past experience that when I love a book that much, the next one (or two or three) are going to get short-shrift, not measure up in comparison, and so I thought, “Well, okay then, let’s go ahead and start this since I probably won’t like it anyway.”

Was I ever wrong. (Well, yes, in fact, I am often wrong — but wait, that’s another kind of blog post. Or, maybe, not.)

In the 1850’s Thomas McNulty, who watched his entire family succumb to the to the Great Famine in Ireland, emigrates to America when Irish immigrants suffered the sort of bigotry Muslims now suffer from the ignoramus-tr*mpist class(less) hordes. In his early teens, he dives under a hedge in Missouri to escape a rainstorm, and it is there fate throws him up against the even younger John Cole, who, too, has been living on his own, having left his family and home at age twelve. From page two it is clear their connection lasts a lifetime:

Thank God John Cole was my first friend in America and so in the army too and the last friend for that matter. He was with me nearly all through this exceeding surprising Yankee sort of life which was good going in every way.

McNulty lives in this nearly comma-free, rough-hewn, plainspoken reality, the patois of which Sebastian Barry has artfully crafted so the deceptive simplicity of the voice in contrast to the depth and emotional complexity of the story is exultantly atonal, inviting the reaction, “what is this unexpected, unusual, and jarring, yet beautiful music?”

McNulty and Cole love one another. From their early employment as faux-female barroom hostesses selling dances and sexual favors, to their faux-adoption of a Native American child whose people they have had a role in slaughtering, to their attempted escape from a lifetime of mercenary soldiering to a farm life as husband and wife, McNulty unapologetically and without angst in skirts, they are quietly lovers, partners, companions, a couple.

While McNulty and Cole’s union might have felt anachronistic in less capable hands, Sebastian Barry manages to make it as believable and visceral as he does the haunting brutality of the lives his characters lead, the milieu of violence and hunger and the treacherous landscape of fealty to the truth of one’s self.

The story is deftly relevant without being sententious, a poetic exploration of the shapes family, love, gender, and violence can take in a life, and the rewards and losses of one’s odyssey through that life in an often unfriendly world.

The End Of Eddy is an international sensation, translated from the French, about which I have been hearing for months so I begged for and received an advanced reader’s copy.

Honestly, I am torn.

Luckily, Garth Greenwell, author of one of the finest novels I have ever read, What Belongs To You [read what I thought and wrote about it HERE, from February 2016], has written one of his customarily comprehensive and insightful exegesis of The End Of Eddy HERE, in the New Yorker Magazine [click here] which explains and illumines this translation brilliantly.

You can stop here, now, if you’re looking for me to shed any light on this novel’s technique or the author’s background. This is a book hewn from personal experience and, for me, a gay man of a certain age who was obviously, inescapably effeminate as a youth in a time when being so was guarantee of abuse and rejection, The End Of Eddy was a painful revisiting of a difficult and often terrifying youth; a revisiting made all the more excruciating given the current political climate of a return to the hate and bigotry and inequality we’ve worked so hard and sacrificed so much to change for those who’ve come after us; that we now have in power in this supposedly civilized country a group of cis white men who are determined to belittle and demonize women, people of color, LGBTQ, and all others who are not THEM, is a harrowing reality — and makes this novel not just relevant, but required.

But, maybe not required for people who’ve lived through it. Which means, in my case anyway, the rest of this “review” will be an unabashedly personal confession.

Edouard Louis has said that everything in this novel actually happened to him. An eerie amount of his ordeals were also mine. I had family members who found my effeminacy embarrassing and suggested with a tone of distaste I stop acting like a girl. I was targeted by bullies in school, daily abused by the same people, and was blamed for it by administration, told I should try to be more like a boy, fit in more. I too had crooked teeth, stained by medication my mother took while carrying me, which were never fixed because braces hadn’t worked well enough for my brother and there just wasn’t money to take care of my teeth — which are still a mess. I too underachieved in school, was constantly told I should use my genius I.Q. and excel, but was so terrorized by the abuse I suffered each day in school, the amount of time I spent ducking the people who’d call me names, throw me into lockers, dunk me into toilets — all of which I KNEW was my fault for not being more of a boy — that I couldn’t focus at school; being smart only made me more of a target. I too was afraid all the time when I was with my family or walking down a school hallway or out in public that someone would call me one of the many derogatory names that were shouted and whispered and graffitied at me throughout my life and humiliate me by naming my shame and flaw in front of others. I too had no idea how NOT to act like, walk like, talk like, think like, want like a girl — it was who I was and it was clear that me was a freak.

So, whatever the artistic merit of The End of Eddy, I cannot fairly measure. I was overtaken by the tsunami of pain in its story, near drowning in my own memories of the assaults on my humanity, the degradation and angst in which I lived and which I have worked impossibly hard to escape but which is there, part of the foundation of who I am, always ready to come at me and make me feel less than at the slightest provocation.

And the November election was a provocation not at all slight, a seeming affirmation of all the hateful ignorami whose own insecurities and idiocy lead them to revel in making the lives of we “other” so difficult to navigate.

Look, I can hear (and have heard) some of those who have not had this experience saying, “Get over it.” Hell, even some people who have experienced the bigotry are impatient with those who still suffer the after-effects of the trauma — although I often suspect those people are in denial, having never quite processed their own traumas — but that’s another blog entry and book review.

I would like to get over and get past it, as I’m sure Edouard Louis was, but you can’t get over or past what was carved into you during your formative years. You can only adapt, and the brutal truth of adaptation is that you will always need to spend a certain amount of your life-energy being on the lookout for the early-ingrained self-hatred and adjusting past it and its effects. You simply cannot live in a bigoted, misogynist, racist, homophobic world/society without some measure of it infecting you.

Even when I’ve found a group of people who I feel accept me — like theatre, like writers, like gay men, like, most recently, a warm and wise community on Twitter — I still feel outlier, other than, less than, never among the elite. For me, there is always what feels like an awareness that I don’t really belong, I am just visiting, having been given a visa which might at any time be revoked. I am always certain there is a secret world and cabal among them, an insiders circle and parties and events where the ones who really like each other gather, to which I will never be invited; an echelon membership in which  I will never achieve. I will never be quite enough, there will ALWAYS be something not okay about me — my teeth, my body, my income, my history, my age, my inability to ignore this dysfunction I’ve just spent paragraphs describing.

So, when I reached the last page of The End Of Eddy — which considering the short length of the book took me a very long time because all the similarities made it rough going for me — I was destroyed by the knowledge that this Eddy, no matter how far he traveled from the circumstances of his youth, whether his teeth got straightened or he wrote an international best seller, this Eddy would always bear the scars and need workaround his early years.

And it made me sad. Very, very sad.

IN CONCLUSION …

These two books, like I said some two thousand words ago, could not be more alike. And, more different. They both describe with brutal, violent truth, the lives of men who love men. Yet, the lyrical Western-ish tale set in the 1850’s, was a more hopeful, less horrifying (for me) story with an ending suggesting some resolution. While the Bildungsroman of Eddy’s story, set in the near past, was terrifying, traumatizing, and with nary a hint of happy end. Two novels exploring the realities of men loving men, both worth reading, neither easy to read, and obviously — five days and two thousand words later — difficult for me to process, and I suppose this conclusion has a lot to do with my mood, my sorrow, my loss of hope (I’m trying to get it back) since the November disaster and its aftermath, but what feels the saddest to me, what made me weep having finished these two novels and spent five days trying to figure out what it was that devastated me so, is this: the sneaking suspicion that maybe, after all, things DON’T get better, because in many ways, McNulty and Cole’s 1850’s life was far better than Eddy’s 1970’s life.

And, with that, here I am, going.