Reflections on an American divide
The Civil War is newly over. In the parlour of a Virginian plantation house, two men stare each other down: a northern colonel who wields the moral authority of victory and a southern slave-owner who doesn’t give a damn. “You want to have a debate about justice?” he prods. “Tell me what it looks like. Come back in five years, in ten, in a hundred, and tell me what you’ve accomplished.”
It’s a challenge issued with chilling pragmatism in the closing chapters of Kevin Powers’s much-anticipated second novel, A Shout in the Ruins, but also the key to the book’s narrative logic. Alternating between the 1860s and 1950s, Powers sets out to measure the two Americas against one another — their twin promises, failures and cruelties — while implicitly encouraging his readers to hold their own time to account.
The hinge of this novel is George Seldom, who we meet in the last week of his ninedecade life, in 1956. His neighbourhood has been demolished to build a highway, its inhabitants ghettoised. Anchorless, George sets out to trace his beginnings: “How was it that he’d found himself as a small boy, filthy with dust ... with nothing but his name, the clothes he wore, and a hurriedly inscribed note that said Look after me, I now belong to you.”
That George will be born during the Civil War is the book’s promise; to whom, one of its driving mysteries. The other is the fate of Emily Reid Levallois, whose reported death and rumoured survival open the novel: “If tragedy is what she meant to leave behind, she did so as surely as if it had been written in her will ... in an ink of blood and ash.”
As we skip back to Emily’s 1860s childhood, who might be snared by her dark inheritance? Will it be Rawls and Nurse, an enslaved couple in love? Emily’s father, whose body and mind will be shattered by the war? Or her husband-to-be, Antony Levallois, the southerner in the parlour?
Powers turned to writing after serving in the US military. Like the narrator of his widely lauded debut, The Yellow Birds (2012), he spent two years in Iraq, as a machinegunner attached to an engineering unit. That novel — lyrical, interior and unsparing — earned comparisons with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
“In The Yellow Birds Kevin Powers told the story of a conflict we thought we knew,” reads the blurb of his new offering. “In A Shout in the Ruins, he gives voice to one we’ve almost forgotten.” It’s an elegant line, but more accurate when its ideas are switched.
It was The Yellow Birds that illuminated a forgotten war, one shrouded in misinform- ation and Western indifference. The Civil War is in no danger of being forgotten; some would argue it never truly ended. As the contemporary arguments about its statues and symbols demonstrate, there is scope — need — to look beyond the brass-buttoned generals and big speeches on small hills.
Contemporary writers understand that revisiting the mythologised past demands new mutinies. Colson Whitehead drew on science fiction for his 2017 Pulitzer prize-winner The Underground Railroad, and Paul Beatty on satire in 2016 for The Sellout (the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize).
Powers’s novel is aware of the task, but not quite equal to it. His innovations are gentle; they come from relegating the battles and politics of the Civil War to background noise — like a half-forgotten dream — and foregrounding everyday cruelties: violence that is “never more than a whim away, or at a distance closed by some minor disappointment”.
Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Powers proves himself a deft cultural machinist, using the quiet stories of his home town to disassemble the grand American apparatus and its ingrained racial inequities: 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. The gun goes off when the line gets crossed, and the line got crossed a long time ago ... When is simply a matter of how long it takes to get it out of the holster, how long it takes the bullet to arrive.
Antony Levallois, the villain, is the triumph of the novel, his extraordinary cruelty propelled by motivations that are terrifyingly ordinary, an object lesson in the difference “between the kinds of men who wanted only to collect power, and the far-more-dangerous ones who wanted only to collect the wants of other men”. It’s a testament to Levallois’s strength that Powers can explain: “Mr Levallois was a man, but he was also an idea”, and find his character’s power undiminished.
The problem is all of Powers’s characters become ideas, every brain mined for its existential poetry, every backstory for its historical weight. What emerges is an aphoristic bramble, a tangle of too-perfect thorns. Potency sacrificed for beauty; speech for thought. It’s a tendency that lurked in The Yellow Birds but was kept in check by the novel’s battlefield urgency. With a century to embroider, A Shout in the Ruins luxuriates in contemplation and narrative culs-de-sac.
“Decorating the world does not disguise its cruelty,” Powers writes, “it simply digs its foundations deeper.” At a time when those foundations need to be shaken, it’s advice he should have heeded. is a writer and critic.