Death lurks around every corner in Irish novelist Sebastian Barry’s new book Days Without End. But narrator Thomas McNulty is a survivor: the potato famine in Ireland, the immigrant fever sheds and mass graves in Canada, the Indian Wars, the Civil War and the random violence of the postbellum South. He has witnessed enough tragedy to darken 10 lifetimes. And yet, in spite of those horrors, Days Without End is suffused with joy and good spirit.
A hefty chunk of Thomas’ pleasure in life comes from comrade-in-arms John Cole. They meet as ragamuffin boys scrounging for food in a frontier town, “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world,” and eventually find work in a saloon putting on dresses and dancing with lonely cowboys for 50¢ a night. There, Thomas comes to two understandings: that his handsome best friend is the love of his life, and that he enjoys dressing as a woman. He stays by John’s side throughout Army campaigns across the South and West, and dons dresses in peacetime. Between wars, the couple take in Winona, a Sioux girl who becomes a daughter to them and redoubles their joy. Unlike the doomed couple of Brokeback Mountain, this pair make a happy, stable family. “My heart is full of Winona but also John Cole,” Thomas writes. “How come we got to have Winona? I don’t know. We been through many slaughters, John Cole and me. But I am as peaceful and easy now as I ever been. Fear flies off and my box of thoughts feels light.”
Through Barry, the frontiersman has a poet’s sense of language. His thoughts on his sergeant’s visible aging: “Like we got 10 faces to wear in our lives and we wear them one by one.” If you underlined every sentence in Days Without End that has a rustic beauty to it, you’d end up with a mighty stripy book.
This appears in the January 30, 2017 issue of TIME.