Jack McNulty is the Temporary Gentleman, a retired Irish soldier who served in the British Army during the Second World War. His story is also based on the maternal grandfather of the novelist Sebastian Barry. During the war Jack was given a temporary commission as an officer in the Royal Engineers, such men were dubbed ‘temporary gentlemen’. After the end of the war Jack lingers on in Ghana and writes his memoirs. The novel flits between his remembered youth in the West of Ireland and the older and reflective man in Ghana. The Temporary Gentleman is the latest of several books that Sebastian Barry has written about the fortunes of his maternal family. Others include The Secret Scripture and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.
Essentially Sebastian Barry writes a love story based on the tender but destructive relationship of his grandparents. Their love story has its beginnings at the university in Galway where Jack first met Mai, Barry’s grandmother. As a young woman she is beautiful, charismatic and from a wealthy Galway family.
Jack is captivated by her from the outset and pursues her with purpose. His tactics of pursuit involve placing himself in her path at every opportunity until eventually she speaks to him, remarking he is “like a Jack in the box”. Mai’s father disapproves of Jack, spotting immediately his reliance on alcohol. They are married nonetheless but Jack’s drinking continues and behavior grows wreak less. The happy marriage begins to fray as Jack’s love for Mai and love for drinking cannot happily co-exist. The confident Mai reveals her frailties and Jack disappoints us again and again. He ignores the warnings that his wife is struggling with mental health problems and escapes by enlisting in the army. Mai begins to drink herself. While Jack could be described as a ‘functional’ alcoholic, Mai drinking exacerbates her every dysfunction.
Jack narrates his memoirs with great frankness and honesty. His voice is introspective and full of remorse. Gradually and with painful reflection he can see his part in the demise of his beloved family. By acknowledging his own culpability, he redeems himself to some extent in the eyes of the reader. His repentance in far away Africa comes far too late to redeem the situation. The novel is all the more powerful because the reader knows the events are rooted in truth. It is saddening to consider the chaotic and destructive household Jack’s two children grew up in, one of them Barry’s mother, the actress Joan O’ Hara.
The breath of this novel is impressive. Barry captures the atmosphere in Ireland in the aftermath of the civil war. He describes Jack’s escapades during the war in bomb disposal and his time in Africa during and after the war. Despite its many regrets, Jack McNulty’s life was full of colour and adventure. The novel reflects the light and the darkness of his living and loving.