Familiar to many is the saying that God created alcohol to prevent the Irish from taking over the world. Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s latest offering, a portrayal of one Jack McNulty, illustrates this notion. Born at the beginning of the 20th century in the western Ireland town of Sligo, Jack was endowed with intelligence, charm and red hair. He graduated from the university with a degree in engineering. It was on the campus that Jack first met a woman named Mai Kirwan — a seemingly ordinary encounter that would prove to be his life’s defining moment.
Two narratives with different time frames and locations alternate throughout the fast-paced novel. In 1957 in Accra, Ghana, where Jack is working as a U.N. adviser, he writes his memoirs, in which he affectingly reveals his turbulent relationship with Mai and charts her tragic deterioration. Jack’s recollections offer us a realistic and, at times, delightful depiction of Irish life.
On the social scale, Mai’s family is a cut above Jack’s. Her father sells insurance; her brother is a physician. Both of Jack’s parents work in the “lunatic” asylum, sewing uniforms for the inmates.
The book opens with a grippingly detailed set piece in which Jack, as an officer in the British army during World War II, nearly perishes off the coast of Africa. Barry inserts another equally dramatic set piece later in the novel. Jack has been posted to Yorkshire to teach enlisted men how to defuse German parachute bombs. He is drinking in the officers’ mess when it is bombed and consumed by fire.
Undoubtedly the most impressive feature of the book is Barry’s matchless imagery, particularly in conjuring Mai, whom Jack marries. Her hair, he writes, is “as black as worry,” and there is an “undertow of kindness in her voice.” The young Mai has a “habit of happiness.”
Mai’s happiness, however, is short-lived. After a time, Jack’s relentless drinking and his spendthrift habits — mostly on the horses — take their toll on the marriage. They lose their house to the bank, and Mai stops speaking to Jack. He notes in his memoirs, “her despair, her air of hopelessness and outrage was frightening to behold, and I was drinking as fast and as much as I could in the evenings in the cold, dank bars of Sligo town.”
When Mai gives birth to a dead baby she, too, turns to drink. Soon her consumption of gin equals her husband’s intake of whisky. There is “a general atmosphere of drinking” in the McNulty house. Clocks and dishes are furiously thrown and smashed. Ironically, Jack comments on Mai’s drinking without referring to his own addiction: “It was no bother to her to down two bottles of gin, she did it with almost a steady hand all through the evening and early night.”
Despite the many flashes of humor sprinkled throughout “The Temporary Gentleman,” it is a brutal and disturbing book. Yet it does showcase Sebastian Barry at the top of his form as a writer.
Katherine Bailey also writes reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her website is katherinebaileyonbooks.com. She lives in Bloomington.