JUNE 9, 2018
JUDGE HOLDEN in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian said, “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.” There certainly seems no other way in the work of Kevin Powers, an Iraq War veteran whose 2012 novel, The Yellow Birds, was hailed as one of the most evocative accounts not just of the Iraq misadventure but of war itself, summoning comparisons to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Powers went for lyrical, McCarthy-like personifications of war. The narrator, Private John Bartle, says, “While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way,” even when he returns to his home in Richmond. War is pervasive in Powers’s new novel, too, in this case the struggle for the American soul, the Civil War. In A Shout in the Ruins, the Virginian who flies to an American war halfway across the world is replaced by the Virginian fighting his countrymen on his own soil. Unlike Iraq, unlike even Vietnam, this war penetrates the household, at least in the South. The McCarthyesque revelation here: “the truth at the heart of every story, that violence is an original form of intimacy, and always has been, and will remain so forever.” If that’s so, what kind of a country can one build and how do people live in harmony in it, whether in the 1860s, the 1950s, or the 1980s (the novel’s three time zones)?
Alfred Kazin once wrote of civil war that “[t]he very foundations of the human family are ripped asunder, and that is why such wars are never forgotten and perhaps never quite end.” Their literature continues, too. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, are to name but four highly acclaimed recent works that make the experience of American slavery speak to the present. Both The Yellow Birds and A Shout in the Ruins are in essence about the American experiment. In the new novel, the union is literally under threat, and so too is any sense of liberty in it, not just of slaves but of every citizen. Anthony Levallois, master of the Beauvais estate near Richmond, then the Confederate capital, believes in the sacred right of self-government, and puts it to practice in the exploitation of his slaves and other dependents. But his is of course a simulated freedom: if the country isn’t free, no one in it is, either.
The Beauvais estate is the heart of the novel. In the same essay, Kazin wrote that “the South had all the romance and all the honor […] if you want to write about the most dramatic event in American history, where else can you set it but where almost all the fighting took place, and who can your hero be but the man fighting for his home?” The owner’s belief in the justice of that fight is, like the religious fundamentalist’s, total, and yet everyone else seems to know that this kind of hero is becoming obsolete. As Powers writes, “Mr. Levallois was a man, but he was also an idea. And he was an idea that no one in Chesterfield County had ever considered making an argument against.” To prevail, the argument merely needs to begin; when it does, Levallois the man and Levallois the idea are doomed. Notable about Levallois, however, is that he anticipates his own obsolescence, preparing for the morning after by demolishing houses on the estate to build a railway line to Raleigh, awaiting the speculators who’ll confirm the rise of his property’s value. The slave owner reincarnated as the industrialist. But this transition can’t outpace the force of history, which will consume him.
A Shout in the Ruins depicts the death of the flesh of the Levallois idea but also of its disembodied soul that survives. The narrative switches back and forth between, primarily, the 1860s and 1956, when, like Levallois’s railway, Eisenhower’s interstate highway scheme is tearing through Virginia neighborhoods. Nonagenarian George Seldom, at the end of his life is inquiring into the start of it, about which he knows nothing except that he was found abandoned at age three at the edge of a North Carolina river with a note reading, “Look after me, I now belong to you.” George still carries the note, and shares it with a diner waitress named Lottie, who becomes an accomplice in his quest. We learn that George is a descendant of Beauvais, the illegitimate child of Levallois and a slave known as Nurse. Long after he’s dead, Lottie still carries George’s story. In the 1980s, Lottie is in a relationship with a younger man, Billy, and this mixed-race couple often gets looks in Tappahannock and Richmond. The American family still hasn’t healed. In a coy and seemingly unnecessary parenthesis, Billy’s son from a previous marriage is the John Bartle of The Yellow Birds.
Powers is good at writing war. A Federal soldier tells Confederate counterpart Bob Reid, who is lying in a field with an arm blown off, that in addition to being knifed and possibly shot in the belly, “I’ve cracked my glasses, too.” There’s an echo here of lived experience, the author’s firsthand knowledge yielding a sure human touch, which Yellow Birds was full of. He also continues building on a staple of the American literary diet since at least Moby-Dick: the individual’s relation to nature. In wartime Iraq, hope and despair are reflected through allusions to the natural world, in metaphor as well as fact. A lull in violence is “like a small circle of sunlight falling absently through clouds.” What Bartle notes as he’s lying prostrate to avoid mortars is the dirt in his mouth. The Iraq War is an exploration of “the few acres of the world for which we were responsible,” a few acres rich with fruit and hyacinths, the discovery of which is more essential than conquest and consolidation; their destruction is part of the Iraq tragedy. In A Shout in the Ruins, too, nature is the ultimate master. “The night had a face,” thinks Reid, amid war. “It knelt on his chest. Its weight pushed him deeper into the mud.” Rain and rivers and sycamore and tobacco fields fill and shape the lives of the characters.
But Powers’s vast landscapes are metaphysically confined. In The Yellow Birds, IEDs and enemy combatants, the unpredictability of the next mortar shower, delimit the physical and psychological territory that Bartle, armed and authorized by the biggest military in history, can traverse. The war might be an exploration of those few acres of the world, but when the mortars come, the previously expansive Bartle reminds himself, “Get small, Private.” Later going AWOL of course means he’s completely dependent on the superior who discovers him: “I own you,” the superior tells him. In A Shout in the Ruins, Powers contrasts the plantation and its surroundings with the (original) institution of slavery. The slave John Rawls runs through the Beauvais estate at night in search of “something that would not be subject to the strange laws of the borderless world in which he lived. Something he could claim that they could not.” Early in his life, this tendency provoked a white man to take a hatchet to his feet. Yet, Rawls runs again now, in search of his beloved Nurse, who will later give birth to and abandon George. There are two opposed inevitabilities here: that white masters will catch up with Rawls, and that history will catch up with the white masters.
Despite a gift for impressionism, Powers is a cerebral writer and a compulsive explainer. Unfortunately, this chokes much of his narratives. Take this passage from The Yellow Birds:
The rest is history, they say. Bullshit, I say. It’s imagination or it’s nothing, and must be, because what is created in this world, or made, can be undone, unmade; the threads of a rope can be unwoven. And if that rope is needed as a guideline for a ferry to a farther shore, then one must invent a way to weave it back, or there will be drownings in the streams that cross our paths. I accept now. Though in truth it took some time, that must must be its own permission.
Forgiveness is an altogether different thing. It can’t be patterned, as a group of boys can become a calculus for what will go ungrieved, the shoulders slumping in seats of a chartered plane, the empty seats between them, how if God had looked on us during that flight back home we might have seemed like fabric ready to be thrown, in the surrendered blankness of our sleep, over the furniture of a thousand empty houses.
Stripped of a “calculus” here and a “surrendered blankness” there, this passage might have packed a philosophical punch instead of a pedantic clutter. Earlier, a superior warns Bartle, “If you get back to the States in your head before your ass is there too, then you are a fucking dead man.” A primal moment like this is, however, interrupted moments later with the observation that “Murph came to embody an opacity I couldn’t penetrate further,” followed by, “My mutterings in the dark were punctuated by short percussive sobs.” Even in retrospection, who would actually describe their sobs as short and percussive? Yet, there is enough intimacy in the book, like the soldier daubing Tabasco to his eyes to stay awake, that the scholastic spurts don’t engulf us. Moreover, Bartle’s knowingness, his sense of his own knowledge, is entirely credible given the effect of surviving a war that his friend Murph didn’t.
The intelligence in the new novel, however, is suffocating. Powers skips perspectives from character to character to an omniscient narrator who knows things the characters don’t, without getting too close to any one figure. Cameo players, even a postman we never see again, are offered a hearing. A panorama of voices in itself isn’t a problem, but Powers never strikes a comfortable balance, in particular between the omniscient and the personal. The result is that we’re often unsure of the origins of an observation. This matters. For example, observing George, Lottie “began to feel an unexamined warmth toward him that is not uncommon among the young toward the old.” Unexamined by who? And whose observation is that this is “not uncommon among the young toward the old”? Are we learning something about Lottie or is an omniscient voice telling us something rather mundane about humans? Similarly: “He might have thought that this reflected the ordained state of things as well, but here we have the contradictions of what we might call Mr. Levallois’s faith: it was only strong when it worked clearly in his favor.” Is the identification of the contradiction a moment of self-reflection, or again an impersonal eye using much structure to yield another flat observation, which doesn’t distinguish Levallois from many millions of others? It’s difficult to tell if simplicity is parading as complexity at the bidding of a character, in which case it might be forgivable, or of the author, in which case it’s not.
When Powers writes of Bob Reid, lying broken and amputated at the bed of a creek, that the idea of his lost arm belonging “to another man hidden in the tall grass did not leave him entirely,” he nullifies any dramatic possibility when he adds, “and, in fact, never would.” It neutralizes the question, Bob’s and ours, of that possible hidden man, of Bob’s survival. With the war over, a colonel comes to the Beauvais estate to ensure that Levallois is abiding by national law. Glimpsing a boy outside carrying a rake, “For a moment, he had mistaken the rake for a rifle and he followed the boy with his eyes, uncharacteristically turning his back to the seated man as the boy walked out of view.” If we know from the start it’s not a rifle but a rake, why would we care if the colonel continues to gaze in the boy’s direction, turning his back to Levallois? Powers, in his impulse to lay down all the facts, too often rushes through any potential tension.
Powers’s writing smells of the lamp when we’re told that George “had a deeply ingrained skepticism toward history, given that very little of it that he encountered reflected the singular experience of passing through it.” Or when we’re in the fields of war, “the inevitable exhaustion of the human vocal cords being a thing toward which Bob [Reid] began to feel a tremendous amount of gratitude.” Another character John Talbot “wanted the gray-eyed girl to know her dog had not died alone. A low standard, any reasonable person would admit, perhaps ridiculously so, but to do one’s best means only that, and to be better than one was requires that we had once been worse.” Dialogue is equally labored, such as when Lottie, in 1956, upon hearing of George’s origins says, “It’s just that, and I don’t mean to be rude, mister, but 1866 might as well be feudal England, it seems so long ago.” Moreover, the voices rarely evoke their times. As in the long passage from The Yellow Birds quoted above, Powers often takes a metaphor too far. Late in the book, “Autumn, too, took its harvest from the fields and departed. And winter returned without having to ask the way.” Unlike his first novel, there isn’t enough intimacy, not enough glimpses of humanity, or characters we care for sufficiently, to overlook these problems.
In a typically highbrow moment, Powers ventriloquizes through George: “Whoever said a rifle on a wall was an opportunity for suspense must have been European. As if there would ever be a question of its getting fired or not in America.” There are two problems here, one minor and one major. First, Chekhov’s rifle on the wall must always go off. “If it’s not going to be fired,” the great Russian wrote, “it shouldn’t be hanging there.” (Umberto Eco, I believe, much later than the 1950s said that the question about whether the gun on the wall was going to be fired itself provides drama.) The bigger issue, however, is precisely that with all his foreshadowing and explaining, Powers not only assures us that the gun will go off, but too often tells us when and by whom, and who’ll be standing in the line of fire and, worse, who won’t be. Because of the beautiful precariousness of experience in The Yellow Birds, because Powers brings an instinct to the subject of war that few novelists today do or can, I want him to succeed here. But the literary bar for this particular war is rising high, in no small part due to the novels mentioned earlier, the best of which reproduce the voices of an earlier time and allow them some autonomy, tolerate instability. Powers seems more inclined toward over-regulation and order even as he’s trying to tell a story of disorder, and we get a closed story where we need an open one.