- - Thursday, August 28, 2014

By Sebastian Barry
Viking, $26.95, 310 pages

Jack McNulty, an Irishman commissioned in the British Army during World War II and thus “a temporary gentleman,” was standing on the deck of the ship en route to British Africa to counter the forces of Vichy France. A “lovely mole-grey air moved across the ship in a beneficent wave … [he] could see the coast of Africa lying out along a minutely fidgeting shoreline. The only illuminations were the merry lights of the ship, and the somber philosophical lights of God above.”

Suddenly, a torpedo hit the ship in a breathtaking, whirlwind account “of smoke, of fire, of blood, of water.” Jack was sucked under, tossed up, thrown against the hull. And “as the killed ship rolled slowly over, seeking its doom at least in a balletic and beautiful curve,” he “unfolded” himself “like a lover rising victorious from the marriage bed, and … swam, and swam, looking for the surface … .”

It’s a stunning beginning for the story of a marriage, which like the ship, goes from a calm and beautiful beginning to a turbulent, violent end.

As “The Temporary Gentleman” opens, Jack has returned to Accra, Ghana, living in a “a little plaster house” with his African servant and friend Tom Quaye. His postwar work as a U.N. observer is over, and he is writing a journal that begins in 1922 when he first saw Mai Kirwan “in her loose black skirts, her lovely face above a long-boned frame … .”

Jack was an engineer. During the war, he was a defuser of bombs. In Africa, he was briefly a gunrunner. He was always a heavy drinker.

Jack and Mai came from opposite worlds. Jack’s father, a tailor in the Sligo Lunatic Asylum, played in a band. His “indirect wife” — Jack’s mother — “small, black-clothed as if she were already a widow,” was terrified of being illegitimate. Mai’s father was a businessman, a “solid man, with his air of tremendousness.” Her mother was “bony as a cat, with her child’s smile, as if no one was looking at her, as if she was in some measure invisible.” For Mr. Kirwan, Jack was “the buveur [drinker] of Sligo.”

Jack wooed and won his beauty of Sligo with her black hair and eyes “all ember and turf-black.” Mai took his breath away; she took “[his] heart, [his] soul, [his] very purpose in being alive.”

After a happy stint with the British Foreign Office on the Gold Coast, Mai returned to Ireland for the birth of their first child, and Jack followed. A second daughter arrived a year later. Mai’s brother gave them the family house he had inherited.

Unable to find suitable work as an engineer, Jack went to work for the Land Commission as an assistant inspector. Two children, an extravagant wife, Jack’s penchant for whiskey and horse racing and the expense of running a large house on a small salary ultimately caused financial ruin and the house, collateral for many unpaid loans, was sold.

The marriage collapsed. Mai turned to gin for relief from poverty, motherhood and failed dreams. The couple tore into one another verbally. “It was as if the bricks and mortar of the house itself were saturated in alcohol. As if the house itself were drinking. There was something enjoyable about some of it, at least at the beginning, at least at the beginning of certain evenings.” Mai “had such gifts … for the piano, for teaching, for fashion, even for the tennis court. Gifts that were put in the great jars of alcohol and suffocated, mummified.”

In the end, as she lay dying of cancer, Mai forgave Jack for his blind selfishness, for his inability to see how she was suffering, to understand her loneliness.

Mai’s death broke Jack’s heart. He returned to Accra. He understood that “[w]e are in the great belly of the whale of what happens, we mistook the darkness for a pleasant nighttime, and the phosphorescent plankton swimming there for stars.”

Sebastian Barry is an Irish poet as well as a novelist, and the expressive, lyrical prose of “The Temporary Gentleman” has a melodic rhythm. The repetition of words gives a depth of meaning to the narrative, which switches from Jack’s present in Accra to the events of his journal. For example, as Jack describes Mai, “The waterfall of her black hair, the hat like a boat trying to weather it, her dark eyes in the dark carriage, not so much absent as deep, deep as a well, with the water a far coin below of brightness and blackness. Looking, looking at me …” Or, as he writes of his broken heart, “Now I must try and mend it, I must. I must go back over everything and find the places where it broke … .”

“The Temporary Gentleman” is the work of a great talent. Mr. Barry uses stories from his grandfather; he re-creates characters from his other novels. In recounting the adventures of one lifetime, he lays bare the wild beauty and the sad failures of the Irish soul.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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