The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry, book review: A novel of beauty and excess

 

Sebastian Barry's The Temporary Gentleman is narrated by John "Jack" McNulty, an Irishman whose life spans the first 60 years of the 20th century. McNulty is a husband and father, though pretty poor at both. More successfully, he's a drunk and a spendthrift energised only by sudden trauma: death, explosions, shipwrecks.

Having worked as an engineer, then a bomb disposal expert during the Second World War, he winds up in Uganda where he starts a memoir. This is less an act of recollection than actual experience. "When I write these things down, good Lord, it hits me then. The arrow goes straight through my heart."

First time around McNulty was too boozed, self-obsessed, or simply absent to engage with the people and world around him. The image he falls upon to encapsulate his life is "fog". He's so pleased with it that he riffs on it twice. "There is a lot to be said for this writing stuff down. The fog gets pushed away and the truth or some semblance of it stands stark and naked, not always a comfortable matter..." Later: "There is a great mountain, and high ravines, and great danger, but the fogs says nothing about that, the fog only talks on and on about itself."

One is tempted to say something similar about Jack himself, who isn't a character so much as a collage of Irish prose styles. He can do a mean James Joyce (compound words and classical intertextuality), Samuel Beckett (unrelenting self-examination) and a pretty good Sebastian Barry.

When McNulty's depressed wife Mai wanders naked into the snow, he marvels at the "utter whiteness now in the world, not just covering everything, but wiping it out, erasing it, as if all out story might be returned to a blank page, and nothing written on it, only perhaps the very first promise of our love." What you make of Jack, and indeed the book, depends largely on your attitude to this sort of thing. Are those incantatory rhythms and plangent repetitions lyrical and touching? Or is this pedantic, over-emphatic and sentimental?

More crucially, are these examples of literary self-love a reflection of McNulty's character or a result of Barry's excess? McNulty certainly likes the sound of his own voice. When capturing Mai's despair after their daughter Maggie leaves home, he uses six words when one might have done: "but Maggie was not there, was she, she was gone, and would never be living at home again – never, never, never, never, never".

On the flipside are two extraordinary set pieces – the torpedoed supply ship that opens the novel, the explosion that almost kills Jack on army service in Yorkshire – whose roiling movements reminds you what a bravura prose style sounds like. Both passages enact the scene they describe and the novel as a whole: the calm that follows a storm. There is Uganda and Ireland liberating, if not liberated, from colonial oppression, a loving marriage enduring the bruises of constant disappointment, a lonely, self-pitying man reviewing the storms of his life.

The images that haunt you at the end are oddly simple. Jack offering unexpected compassion to his youngest daughter Ursula and kind good humour to his illegitimate mother. Best of all, among the carnage of the massive explosion that somehow fails to kill Jack in the military pub is a single image: "bizarrely, bizarrely there appeared to me... pristine, untouched, immaculate, not a drop spilled... solid and clean in my hand, the pint of waiting beer".

This is a demanding novel about masculine failure that frustrates and beguiles, often in the same meandering sentence.

Whether the reader or indeed Jack McNulty quite escapes his own fog is unclear. There is formidable beauty here, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

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