A Shout in the Ru­ins

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Kevin Pow­ers

Lit­tle, Brown, hard­back, 368 pages, €22.99

In this era of ever-vig­i­lant po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, one of the great­est artis­tic sins is deemed to be cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, which usu­ally means a white nov­el­ist dar­ing to imag­ine what a char­ac­ter from some other eth­nic­ity might be think­ing or feel­ing.

The best ri­poste to this came as far back as 1993, when the Paris Re­view asked Toni Mor­ri­son if Wil­liam Sty­ron had the “right” to use a black slave nar­ra­tor for his 1967 Pulitzer Prize-win­ning novel The Con­fes­sions of Nat Turner, and she replied: “He has a right to write about what­ever he wants. To sug­gest other­wise is out­ra­geous”.

Th­ese are sterner times, though, and it will be in­ter­est­ing to see whether Kevin Pow­ers will be taken to task for imag­in­ing the lives of black Amer­i­can slaves in his new novel.

The 37-year-old Pow­ers, who was born and raised in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, achieved lit­er­ary fame with his 2012 first novel, The Yel­low Birds, which was based on his year-long ex­pe­ri­ences as a ma­chine gun­ner in Iraq in 20042005. It was a strik­ing de­but (a movie ver­sion is to be re­leased im­mi­nently) and while its prose some­times be­came over­heated, it was full of vividly re­alised in­ci­dents and char­ac­ters.

Much the same can be said of A Shout in the Ru­ins, in which Pow­ers re­turns to his na­tive Vir­ginia and imag­ines what life must have been like there in the pe­riod be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the Amer­i­can civil war that raged from 1861 to 1865 be­tween north and south — a con­flict that saw the south­ern slave-own­ing Con­fed­er­ates fi­nally de­feated, though not un­til at least 700,000 sol­diers and civil­ians had been slaugh­tered.

In Pow­ers’ re-imag­in­ing, two of th­ese slaves are Rawls (who had “no re­spect for white folks any­more, but he some­times pitied them”) and Nurse (“the strange girl who would so in­flu­ence the rest of his life”), young neigh­bours in love with each other from an early age but sub­ject to the whims of their own­ers — whether the rel­a­tively de­cent lo­cal land boss Bob Reid or psy­cho­pathic plan­ta­tion owner Antony Le­val­lois, who “felt lit­tle more than con­tempt” for ev­ery­one around him and whose vi­o­lent ten­den­cies are un­nerv­ingly un­pre­dictable.

The book is at its most pow­er­ful when it stays with th­ese and other char­ac­ters in this tur­bu­lent pe­riod, but the au­thor has cho­sen to de­vote every sec­ond chap­ter to other char­ac­ters al­most a cen­tury later — chiefly to Ge­orge Sel­dom in the 1950s, who had been left as a foundling black child with a kindly woman in the 1860s but who is now in his nineties and in­tent on dis­cov­er­ing his ori­gins be­fore he dies.

It’s as if Pow­ers, not con­tent with telling his en­gross­ing his­tor­i­cal story or per­haps not cer­tain it will fully hold the at­ten­tion of to­day’s read­ers, is seek­ing to give it a more recog­nis­able rel­e­vance — even though the 1950s may seem just as re­mote to con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ties as the 1860s, es­pe­cially with black lives then not much freer in many ways than a cen­tury ear­lier. And cer­tainly the ef­fect of Ge­orge’s story, while in­ter­est­ing in it­self, is to con­stantly dis­tract the reader from the essen­tial nar­ra­tive and from the bleak truth of Rawls’s mut­tered mantra that “to­day will be a hard day and to­mor­row even harder”.

In Ge­orge’s 1950s sto­ry­line, the reader also meets Lot­tie, who will try to as­sist him in his quest­ing odyssey. We meet her again in 1984, long af­ter Ge­orge’s demise, when she’s liv­ing with ador­ing Viet­nam vet Billy, who sits be­side her hospi­tal bed when she’s dy­ing of can­cer.

Quite what this has to do with the main sto­ry­line, or even sto­ry­lines, is a com­plete mys­tery and seems to have strayed in from an en­tirely dif­fer­ent novel, and you would think that Pow­ers’ ed­i­tor might have men­tioned that to him.

The reader is fur­ther dis­tracted by the late in­tro­duc­tion of Colonel Tom Fitzger­ald, a union of­fi­cer tasked with main­tain­ing law and or­der in this re­gion of Vir­ginia when the civil war ends. He again is vividly drawn, a moral­is­tic mar­tinet with a stern sense of right and wrong and a sav­age will­ing­ness to dis­pense sum­mary jus­tice, and a fi­nal show­down with the loath­some Le­val­lois seems in­evitable. How­ever, as it turns out, he doesn’t con­trib­ute, let alone ac­com­plish, any­thing, and you’re left won­der­ing why Pow­ers both­ered in­tro­duc­ing him at all.

And the hor­ri­ble ar­bi­trary fate meted out near the end to two of the book’s main char­ac­ters will strike many read­ers as gra­tu­itously cruel, though the au­thor would prob­a­bly ar­gue that such is the way of the vi­cious world he has recre­ated.

That may be, but by now the reader

The hor­ri­ble ar­bi­trary fate meted out to two of the main char­ac­ters will strike many as gra­tu­itously cruel, though the au­thor would prob­a­bly ar­gue that such is the way of the vi­cious world he has recre­ated

may feel en­ti­tled to ask about the point of a nov­el­is­tic re-cre­ation that doesn’t pro­vide any sense of redemp­tion, clo­sure or con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance. Is it re­ally enough to say, well, that’s what it was like?

Per­haps the book’s sales will ben­e­fit from the top­i­cal­ity that’s been pro­vided for it by Amer­i­can su­per­star rap­per and Trump-ad­mirer Kanye West, who re­cently caused out­rage when he told an en­ter­tain­ment web­site: “When you hear about slav­ery for 400 years... 400 years? That sounds like a choice”.

But who’d want to ben­e­fit from mo­ronic re­marks like that? And Pow­ers’ novel cer­tainly evokes a grim sense of what it must have been like to suf­fer the bar­bar­ity of en­slave­ment.

A pity, then, that he opted to de­vi­ate from it through­out too much of his book.

De­but: a movie ver­sion of Pow­ers’ strik­ing first book, about his time in Iraq, is due for re­lease later this month

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