"Gob's Grief" may be the lousiest book title so far this year. The premise is even less promising: The fictional sons of feminist pioneer Victoria Woodhull get involved in a bizarre science fiction scheme to bring the Civil War dead back to life using Walt Whitman as a conduit. It doesn't portend well, either, that this novel is the debut of a 29-year-old medical student. But here's the kicker -- it's terrific. The sweet surprise is how well "Gob's Grief" avoids becoming a novelty tale for history buffs or fantasy fans. Instead, it's a stirring meditation on family, romance and loss -- and a war that, 140 years later, still tears at the soul of a nation.
Author Chris Adrian seamlessly scuttles between fiction and truth, juggling a variety of places and times along with meticulously crafted individual vignettes about real and imagined characters. Though he doesn't tell a linear story, we're pulled along so surely and inevitably that we can fully appreciate the winding beauty of the path only when we look back to see where we've been.
At the height of the Civil War, fate cruelly -- and seemingly permanently -- separates Woodhull's young twin sons from each other. Tomo runs away to become a soldier and is killed in battle; Gob lags behind and lives, but with all the guilt and anguish of a boy who has lost his other half. Years later, Gob, now married and a doctor in New York, enlists modern science and a sinister ancient being called Urfeist to get his brother back. What follows isn't just what happens next but all the important moments that came before, the strange twists and turns leading up to a cataclysmic moment.
Few writers can venture into the fantastic and not come out soaking in cheese, so it's a particular pleasure to discover a new voice that can spin out a myth with such warmth and elegance. "Gob's Grief" may hinge on its wildly inventive premise, but the issues it explores are real. Adrian seems poised to become the successor to novelist John Crowley ("Aegypt" and "Little, Big"). Like Crowley, Adrian uses history and myth not as gimmicks but to say something tender and powerful about humanity.
The magic and machinery in "Gob's Grief," its overlapping story lines and its parade of colorful characters are all unforgettable, but they'd be mere smoke and mirrors without Adrian's haunting prose and his piercing understanding of love and sacrifice. "The dead are not dead," Adrian says, and who among us has never desperately wished, even for a moment, that it could be true?