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The Boston Phoenix Sweet Hereafter

John Brown's buddy marches on.

By Peter Keough

MAY 4, 1998: 

CLOUDSPLITTER, By Russell Banks. HarperFlamingo, 758 pages, $27.50.

A new century looms, and major American novelists seem determined to clear the decks of the last three. Philip Roth with American Pastoral, Thomas Pynchon with Mason & Dixon, and Don DeLillo with Underground have wrestled with a new national epic, hoping to turn out this century's Great American Novel.

Enjoying long overdue stature thanks to Atom Egoyan's brilliant, Oscar-nominated adaptation of his The Sweet Hereafter, and with Paul Schrader's filming of his Affliction awaiting release, Russell Banks is in prime position to deliver his own magnum opus on the American experience. Cloudsplitter, a massive account of the career of John Brown -- abolitionist, guerrilla warrior, and martyr -- illuminates the racial and religious, social and sexual storm clouds that scourge this country with the author's own preoccupations: male fecklessness and violence, society's stark divisions and unlikely reconciliations, the harsh alchemy between parents and their progeny. Although nagged by occasional orotundity, Cloudsplitter is a work equal to its subject: towering, relentless, as unconsoling as tragedy and as compelling as a hymn.

True to his tradition of tormented sons and fathers, Banks (who will read this Saturday at the Harvard Square Book Festival) tells the tale from the point of view of Owen Brown, his father's fiercest lieutenant, and by his account here his father's secret sharer and betrayer. It's the turn of a different century, 40 years after the fiasco at Harpers Ferry, and Miss Mayo, an assistant to Oswald Garrison Villard as he worked on the seminal Brown biography John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After, has solicited Owen's help on the project. Owen has rudely dismissed her but, as the book opens, has reconsidered.

The result is a Proustian outpouring of his share in some of America's most formative and perilous decades, by the side of one its most enigmatic figures, John Brown. The elder Brown emerges not so much the protagonist as part of the setting, a monolith like the Adirondack peak Mount Tahawus, or "Cloudsplitter," that presided over the Brown family homestead in upper New York State. At times, too, he is a clueless fool deluded by competing harebrained schemes for social revolution and business ventures. Both modes are disastrous, with the former having the effect of convulsing the nation in Civil War.

The instigator of all this, though, Owen insists, was himself. In a portentous preamble he argues that his "character is the context without which his father's truth will not be comprehended," whether it go marching on or not. All was due to his subversive manipulation of the Old Man. "I nonetheless became . . . like Iago," he concludes. "Father was my white-skinned Othello."

Owen's motive? Envy, perhaps, at being under his father's shadow, or resentment at the compulsion to participate in a quixotic crusade at the expense of a normal life. Mostly, though, he is driven by fascination with and revulsion for the race he seeks to emancipate. In one of the novel's boldest strokes, Banks plumbs the nexus of envy, wrath, and homoerotic desire underlying Owen's abolitionist mania. Its focus is Lyman Epps, a freed slave helping the Browns with the Underground Railroad. Owen's relationship with Lyman is part Huck and Jim, part Cain and Abel, a volatile mix of sibling rivalry and sexual attraction (nominally directed at Lyman's wife) that explodes into the narrator's first act of perfidy. As Owen explains,

. . . whenever I became aware of my whiteness, I became ashamed . . . For on those occasions when I became enraged by my inability to overcome my weakness, I directed my anger, not at myself, as I should have, but against the person whose race made me conscious of my race. . . .
With its teasing allusions to the Browns' contemporary, Herman Melville, beginning with an epigraph that is the same quote from Job that ends Moby Dick (" . . . and I only am escaped alone to tell thee"), Cloudsplitter can be taken as a hunt not for the Great White Whale but for the not-so-great white race.

After Owen's tortured fulminations about his and his father's intentions, pathologies, and responsibilities, the actual bursting of the storm clouds comes as vivid anticlimax. The coldblooded butchery of five unarmed boys and men at Pottawatamie during the fight over Kansas reeks of shame and pathos; the "apotheosis" at Harpers Ferry, where the elder Brown seized a federal armory with a handful of followers and awaited a slave uprising he knew would never take place, unfolds with farcical inevitability.

In the end the book is a fiction, a tale spun by a self-admitted liar in a futile, Beckett-like effort to fill the void. "I am now no more than these words," Owen admits, "sentences, episodes, and chapters of my past." He proceeds finally to deconstruct his own text, and himself. His father, the mighty Cloudsplitter, has divided the nebulous indifference of history only to have it merge again. As always, the artist, Banks, like Job's messengers of imponderable woe, gets the last word.

Visit the Harvard Square Book Festival Web site at www.bookfestival.com.

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