Re­flec­tions on an Amer­i­can di­vide

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bee­jay Sil­cox

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.

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