Terrible swift sword

David Bowman reviews "Cloudsplitter," Russell Banks' effort at the Great American Novel, an ambitious resurrection of the life and times of anti-slavery crusader John Brown.

Published December 3, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

A couple years ago, Russell Banks was one of three judges who selected "Snow Falling in Cedars" as the winner of the Barnes & Noble Discovery Award. In a ceremony at a Manhattan B&N store, Banks gave a righteous speech in which he declared that the realism in that novel had redeemed American fiction. Banks never defined "realism," assuming the crowd knew what he meant. Banks implied realism was holy. More than that, realism was American. This is an impressionistic description of that night, but Banks spoke with such fully vented spleen about fiction that didn't toe his line that it was as if he wished the Ayatollah Khomeini had proclaimed a fatwa on Thomas Pynchon and his whole crew of American postmodernists.

Now, it's several years later, and HarperFlamingo, HarperCollins' new designer line of literary fiction, has published Banks' opus of realism, "Cloudsplitter." The novel is this author's sincere attempt at the Great American Novel. Remember that term? These are the days when novels are micromanaged into genre -- first novels, coming of age novels, sexual preference novels ... and the most expansive genre, the category known simply as "literary fiction." The idea that any novel could be so expansive as to be classified as the Great American Novel is a fairy tale. (Besides, we all know that term really meant the Great American White Male novel.)

But let's say that Toni Morrison's inspiring "Paradise" is indeed a Great American Novel. Then, based on ambition alone, "Cloudsplitter" also has a shot at the title. The novel is the tale of abolitionist guerilla John Brown, as told by Brown's third son, Owen. John Brown, if you don't know from history books (or the numerous reviews that jumped the March publication date in an attempt to have the definitive word on this book), was the fierce abolitionist who in 1859 led a raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., to capture the U.S. arsenal situated there, with the intention of then leading the insurrection that would liberate all the slaves in the South.

Before we go any further, also know that between that date and the present, Philadelphia-born critic James Gibbons Huneker (1860-1921) coined the term Great American Novel. In 1917 he wrote an essay claiming that the thing hadn't been written yet, but when it was it would likely be a big historical narration à la Sir Walter Scott -- the last author who accomplished what Huneker called "the big bow-wow strain" (whatever he meant by that!). The historical scope of Banks' novel is awe inspiring and would certainly make a dog bark. After taking in Banks' interpretation of pre-Civil War America, you might consider John Brown one of the seminal figures in U.S. history. Not because of what Brown did, per se, but because of how wrong he was in predicting American events: "Remember," his son Owen reminds us, "all-out war between the North and the South was unthinkable to us: due to an ancient, deeply ingrained racism, any war undertaken by the citizens of the North for purpose of freeing an enslaved people whose skins were black seemed a pure impossibility. We believed instead that the Northerners -- when it finally came clear to them what we already knew, that the South now wholly owned the government of the nation -- would simply secede from the Union."

Banks' novel further explains that what Brown proposed to accomplish was the unification of the United States by keeping the North from seceding from a nation where an abolitionist senator could be clubbed nearly to death in the very chambers of the Senate. (Charles Summer of Massachusetts was viciously caned by South Carolinian Preston Brooks and never fully recovered, while Brooks returned home to a hero's welcome.) Brown presumed that the uprising at Harpers Ferry would stimulate thousands of slaves to flock to his side. His army would then link up with Frederick Douglass' to burn "the Slavocracy" into "a smoldering pile of char!"

As history, not fiction, Banks' novel is exceedingly relevant today because Brown's vision is reminiscent of the logic behind Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City -- the sight of a federal building in rubble was supposed to rally the militia around the country to rise and overthrow Washington. This might have actually happened had McVeigh let God do the planning. The Lord was ostensibly the one responsible for John Brown's acts of righteous terrorism, including his murderous rampage against pro-slavery settlers in Kansas in 1855. Brown possessed that primal 19th century American trait that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young shared: personal communication with God.

Deep in "Cloudsplitter," Banks has one of the Brown sons shout: "Shut up, Henry! You have to do what Father says. He has spoken with the Lord all these years, and you haven't." But we all know such communication can fog a father's brain with ego and madness. Later, Owen himself reports, "I looked into Father's ice-gray eyes and saw a strange sort of puzzlement there, and for the first time realized that he ... did not in the slightest understand me. He did not know who I was ... Suddenly, I felt pity for the Old Man. Despite his intelligence and gifts of language and his mastery of stratagem, he possessed a rare and dangerous kind of stupidity -- a stupidity of the heart."

These two bits -- one intentionally or unintentionally hilarious, and the other sad, incisive and tragically beautiful -- clarify that Banks' book is not really a 751-page novel about Harpers Ferry -- that carnage occurs only in the novel's end. And as massive as the novel's historical scope is, "Cloudsplitter" is finally a 751-page novel about a dysfunctional family.

Great American Novels can be about such things. God knows, American history is composed of nothing but dysfunctional families. Banks has reported that his own father was a drunk who beat Russell's mom and the kids, then abandoned the family when the author was just 12. Banks is 57 now. His character Owen Brown is even older -- an old emotional failure in psychic exile in California, raising sheep and still obsessed with his hallowed father. Although Owen's observations about American society in the 1850s are insightful and wise, his take on his own father is strangely immature. It's as if Owen is the one whose father abandoned his family when he was only 12 and the guy just never got over it.

Reading a 12-year-old's rant about Father gets a little tiring after a few hundred pages. Banks' seemingly on-again, off-again period vocabulary gets tiring too. Banks says he limited the words in this novel to ones appearing in the 1853 edition of Webster's dictionary and the Bible, but history can't excuse his constant wooden reworking of Herman Melville's, Emily Dickinson's and Moses' tongue. A reader wades through paragraph after paragraph that slog on like this: "As first, the slope was a gentle incline, and Father and I were able to hold the wagon off the horses by tying the driver's brake back and pausing uphill against the box from the front, our feet skidding and slipping clumsily in the snow. But soon the descent quickened, and the wagon started to break loose. I grabbed the spruce pole out of the wagon box and slung it across to Father, and we each raced to a tree beside the trail and lashed the rope around it, locking the wheels. Then we let the lines out slowly and inched the wagon down the rough trail, skidding it like a sledge, until the ropes had run early all the way out, when we each tied the end to the tree and scrambled down to the wagon and choked the wheels with rocks. Then we stumbled back uphill to the tree, untied the slack ropes, and walked them forward a ways, where we wound them around a nearer pair of trees."

This is not bad prose. It's just workman-like. Cormac McCarthy's recent novels are full of similar descriptions, except McCarthy writes nothing but
declarative sentences, using commas as sparingly as the Roman legionnaires used nails at crucifixions. Rather then trudge on like Banks' prose, McCarthy's goes through a transformation similar to how the weight of the world can turn coal into diamonds.

At a recent panel, held at yet another Barnes & Noble store, to discuss the launching of HarperFlamingo, Banks was seated next to novelist Armistead Maupin. After the latter described adding a two-syllable word to the end of a paragraph not for meaning, but for rhythm, Banks shot Maupin a look of unbridled disgust as if it was unseemly to monkey with content that way. Yet there was a time when Banks would have put his arm around Maupin's shoulder as a brother. That's because Banks himself actively worshipped at the alter of lyric prose. Banks' beautiful 1985 novel, "Continental Drift," is perhaps the Great American Lyrical Novel of this century.

In that book a man is stabbed and falls into the water "like a pale blossom in a storm of blossoms, filling the air with white, a delicate, slowly shifting drift through moonlight to the ground." In "Cloudsplitter," slaveholders are not murdered lyrically, but with Dashiell Hammett flatness: "Fred and then Henry Thompson and Salmon joined in and began hacking away at the brothers, chopping them apart at the arms and slashing them in their chest and bellies, and even Oliver got in some blows with his sword."

Banks' numerous death scenes are powerful, but you'd think the author would have been tempted to write at least one Robert Stone-ish hallucinatory language bit, sentences that would get a reader inside the young killers' state of homicidal rectitude. But Banks gets visionary only once, when Brown and Owen witness the long-distance death of son/brother Fred. "I saw an extraordinary thing. It's something that occurs rarely, but nonetheless normally, at sea or on the desert, and also, on the rarest of occasions, happens out of the prairies of the West, where it appears in more nearly perfect detail and on a much grander scale." Owen reports that this event is "commonly called a mirage." What happens is that "objects and entire scenes and events located far beyond one's normal range of vision are brought close and are made sharply, silently visible."

Banks spends an entire page describing this phenomenon in order to justify how Owen, who is "miles" from the scene, can view Fred's death. Oh Russell, none of your readers would have jumped up and accused you of being Gabriel Garcma Marquez if you just had Owen describe what happened without dragging a mirage into the picture!

"I write the kind of book I want to read," Banks recently said. "My greatest fear is not that my reader is going to be bored, but that I am going to be bored." That's fine. But what is tragically missing from his Great American Novel (tragic because Banks' aspirations are glorious in these post-memoir days) and why, sadly, "Cloudsplitter" is not a great Great American Novel, is that Banks made no attempt to accomplish Huneker's mysterious "big bow-wow strain" -- that undeniable sense of pizzazz that lifts a narration from mere realism into American realism -- a realism that is far crazier, extravagant and otherworldly (just read the newspapers!) than the so-called "magic realism" practiced by all those false gods in Latin America. Doctorow knows this. Styron knows this. Even DeLillo knows this -- which is why that former postmodernist's "Underworld" is more realistic and American than Russell's history-to-the-letter "Cloudsplitter."

This review is expressing a minority opinion. Most of the Big Guns have uniformly praised the novel, although everyone's praise is strangely muted. For example, neither Walter Kirn (New York Times Book Review) nor Gail Caldwell (Boston Globe) announced that they were doing cartwheels over the book. Indeed, all of the Big Guns seem to be secretly telegraphing: "Here is another worthy fat book you can buy and sit on a bookshelf unread beside 'Mason & Dixon' and 'Underworld.'"

No one admits this, but ask any clerk at Barnes & Noble. They'll tell you how there are thousands of unread copies of those last two titles sitting in home libraries across the hinterlands. Maybe you yourself know a reader who cracked a copy and never finished it. Well, that reader will never finish "Cloudsplitter" for a reason that's much different than the Pynchon or DeLillo tomes. It's not a cartoon, like "Mason & Dixon." It is not an alternate history of the abolitionist movement, describing a non-existent Harriet Beecher Stowe novel the way "Underworld" features a phantom Sergei Eisenstein flick. The Banks novel is, in fact, a relentlessly coherent narration. But it will remain unread because Banks has ignored what all American writers should know: In the end you can, in fact, bore yourself. Go ahead and bore yourself silly. Just don't bore the great American reader.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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