THE WHEREABOUTS OF ENEAS MCNULTY
By Sebastian Barry
308 pp., $23.95
Sebastian Barry has written a novel as colorful as a sunset - or a burning house. It's a spectacular hybrid of beauty and tragedy, characteristic of the best writing from Ireland during this century.
"The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" tells the story of a man condemned to wander the earth for a crime he won't commit. He's a citizen wedded to a town that hates him, a loner starved for companionship.
Born with the 20th century, Eneas enjoys an idyllic childhood in the town of Sligo. Nothing means more to him than cavorting with his friends. He and his loving family suffer none of the horrors visited upon Frank McCourt in "Angela's Ashes."
"These are the ancient days," the narrator notes with a sad hint of what's to come. "His father plays the piccolo and his mother dances for him and he sits on the hearthstone smiling crazily at them.... The world is simple with pleasure, and precise, and he hears the boys calling ... in the dusk and thinks of the apples going off in the ganseys as the light fails in the arms of the sycamores."
But trouble starts subtly and unexpectedly as he enters adulthood. Struggling for an occupation in a rapidly constricting economy and with "just a thimble of politics," Eneas innocently joins the British Merchant Navy and waits out World War I in the safety of a port in Galveston, Texas.
After the war, "having no desire to loiter the rest of his days," he makes another fateful misstep and joins the Royal Irish Constabulary. Unfortunately, awareness of the divisions tearing Ireland apart seeps slowly into Eneas's mind. While boyhood friends fall in with the Irish Republican Army, Eneas finds himself working under terrorist attack. Fellow officers go insane or commit suicide to escape the impossibility of policing a country descending into civil war.
One night on patrol, Eneas witnesses the horrible murder of his sergeant. When the assassins are hunted down and killed, Eneas is blamed for squealing on the radicals and marked for death by the thugs throwing Sligo into turmoil.
As "a ruined twenty-year old," Eneas cries out to his father, "I feel it a terrible thing to be hiding in my own town, from my own people, and what remedy will there be for it?" The gentle narrator explains that Eneas "has never been for politics, only the flotsam of its minor storms," but unfortunately, those winds are enough to blow through his life and uproot everything that matters to him.
Given the chance to escape the blacklist by committing an assassination ordered by the IRA, Eneas refuses. "Freedom or no freedom," he tells the boyhood friend who poses this deadly bargain, "I can't see that I will ever want to bring death to a man."
Fleeing bullets in Sligo, surviving bombs at Dunkirk, and enduring the labor of African canals, Eneas understands the treachery of nostalgia. Like some modern-day Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, fated messengers in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," he sails through the world toward a death he knows is coming. "A person can tire of being that mortal leaf twisting and shrugging on the galloping river," he says, but there's no escaping that rough fate. He returns to Sligo again and again throughout his long, troubled life, but the death sentence is never lifted.
Eventually, Eneas does find companionship, but in the most unlikely place and with the most unlikely person, proving that friendship can be cobbled together with any materials if a person is devoted enough.
In the end, Eneas escapes the blacklist in the only way possible, with an act of heroism that transcends the logic of his tragedy but remains true to his love for others.
In prose that's stunningly poignant, Barry has produced a novel about a most unusual plight. But he delves so deeply into Eneas's peculiar fate and redemption that it speaks to us all.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.