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Bleak and beautiful: The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

The spirit of Conrad hovers over this tale of an alcoholic Irishman serving in the British army out in Africa during WWII.

War footing: British troops on a trek with Ethiopian ground forces, February 1941. (Photo: Associated Press)
War footing: British troops on a trek with Ethiopian ground forces, February 1941. (Photo: Associated Press)

The Temporary Gentleman 
Sebastian Barry
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £17.99

 

Sebastian Barry’s eighth novel opens with Jack McNulty, an Irishman serving in the British army during the Second World War, standing on the deck of a supply ship bound for Africa, a bottle of Scotch blazing through his veins. “It is a beautiful night and no mistake,” says the second lieutenant. The engines growl beneath, and the “sombre philosophical lights of God” hang over them like a benediction. Around is “darkness, a confident brush-stroke of rich, black ink”. We might be in the world of Joseph Conrad, and before he reaches the Gold Coast where, adopting a Kurtz-like persona, he will indulge his heart of darkness, McNulty has a Lord Jim experience. The stillness is ripped apart by an “ear-numbing . . . metallic noise”, the port-side goes up, and the second lieutenant is “suddenly as dead as one of those porpoises you will see washed up on the beach at Enniscrone after a storm”. The ship has been torpedoed; McNulty finds himself pulled down into the “deepest dark, the darkest deepest dark that ever was”. While his companions sink to the bottom of the ocean, the warmth of the whisky keeps his own heart ticking.

We are propelled headlong into the turbulence of The Temporary Gentleman, a bleak and beautiful tale about the wreckage of McNulty, a man who has been drowning for years. Conrad’s spirit hovers throughout, but so, too, does a phrase from Henry James. “I have the imagination of disaster,” James wrote in 1896 – “and see life as ferocious and sinister.”

Barry’s readers have met the McNultys before; each member of the family has been, as he puts it, “blown off the road by history’s hungry breezes”. Jack’s brother, Tom, was the husband of Roseanne McNulty, whose story unfolded in The Secret Scripture. An ancient relic abandoned in an asylum, Roseanne described herself as “a thing left over, a remnant woman”. Jack’s elder brother, another piece of historical flotsam and jetsam, was the subject of Barry’s 1998 novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.

Swallowed up by “a hundred different fates and stories”, Barry’s characters live in “the great belly of the whale of what happens”. Barry, a master of metaphor, is fascinated by the slipperiness of narrative and we slide around a good deal in these pages. The Temporary Gentleman is set in 1957, with Jack McNulty outstaying his welcome in Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African colony to gain independence. We have no idea why he is here, what he is running away from, or what to make of our protagonist. Nor does McNulty. During the war, he was a “temporary gentleman” – the term given to a man not born into the officer class – but everything about McNulty is temporary. Over the past 20 years he has wandered the world as a solider, an engineer, a UN observer and a gunrunner, but he cannot get away from Ireland. The country is caught in his system like malaria. “Take away the heat and the fucking palm trees and the black skins,” he says of Accra, “and it’s just Ballymena in the rain.”

He plans to return to Sligo, but first he is writing a memoir of his marriage to Mai, the spirited and statuesque beauty he wed against her father’s wishes (it is always fatal, in Barry’s novels, to be born beautiful and Irish). Mai, who remains unknowable to the reader, spends most of her life waiting for her husband to come home. His past is marinated in alcohol, which makes remembering difficult, but this is not the only reason for McNulty’s strange absence from his own story. “Like a hotel-room facing a high, blank wall”, he “lacks a moral view of things”. He records his courtship, his honeymoon and the collapse of his relationship with Mai as though he were a witness rather than the key player. The first sense we get of his disconnection is when the family house, an heirloom passed on to Mai, is suddenly reclaimed; McNulty, it transpires, has been borrowing against it all along.

Mai is as surprised as we are by the revelation of his failings. Her own bag of money, hidden in the back of the cupboard, has also been filched by her husband, to pay gambling debts, bar bills, milliner’s costs. She can no longer look at him; their marriage falls into silence, and then erupts into warlike scenes described by McNulty as though he were recalling an opium trip. Deep in the seabed of his psyche is a nagging awareness that the attempts to ward off, through drink, his own “darkest deepest dark” resulted in Mai’s subsequent alcoholism and the gradual “erasure” of her vivid life “even as she lived it”. His consciousness that he is not a gentleman at all is as vague and persistent as the buzzing of a fly in the next room; McNulty has ruined his own life and the lives of his wife and children, but a fog clouds his understanding of how it all came about, and how these human ruins are linked to the ruin of his country. It is with the utmost care that Barry allows us to glimpse, through a rent in the mist, where McNulty moves and has his being.

The conclusions of Sebastian Barry’s novels can sometimes disappoint, and readers may find the hairpin turn at the close of this one unsatisfying. It is fitting, however, for a tale that begins with such velocity to end on an emergency stop. The subject of The Temporary Gentleman is historical uncertainty; the uncertainty we are left with as we put down this devastating book is unnervingly appropriate.