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For this Civil War battle, a dictionary is handy

By Robert Goolrick
Saturday, December 12, 2009

DEVIL'S DREAM

By Madison Smartt Bell

Pantheon. 335 pp. $26.95

"Devil's Dream," Madison Smartt Bell's new novel, is a sort of biopic of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate cavalry general who was considered by his peers to be brutal, brilliant, profane, savage and virtually unstoppable in his ferocity. He is sometimes referred to as "the Wizard of the Saddle," and, at least in this work, he is one hell of a feisty redneck. He is also pompous, taciturn, burdened with a Tennessee twang that would make Minnie Pearl blush and, in the end, not very interesting.

The novel is told in fits and starts, jumping backward and forward in time. In the years before the Civil War, Forrest enjoys some prosperity as a slave trader and some domestic comfort in the company of his highborn, oddly matched wife, Mary Ann Montgomery, whom he met while pulling her carriage out of the mud. The years following the war are filled with one failure after another and, ultimately, destitution. These sudden jumps in time are disconcerting and seemingly without point so that we are left not always knowing exactly where we are. In fact, if you know little about the Civil War, the book is a wilderness, and if you know a lot, you may be astonished at the nitpicking quality of Bell's scholarship, amazed at his warehouse of trivia, but I doubt you will be much moved or enlightened.

As portrayed here, Forrest is relentlessly one-note and irritating. Even hillbilly coarseness loses its frisson after repeated usage. One unnamed character says he is "a man having no pretension to gentility -- a negro trader, a gambler . . . Forrest may be & no doubt is, the best Cav. officer in the West, but I object to a tyrannical, hotheaded vulgarian's commanding me."

Note the use of the ampersand. It is an indication of Bell's pretentious 19th-century style, which is a combination of cornpone and ever more complicated forms of swearing. When Forrest isn't talking dirty, he spouts pompous and not very original aphorisms about the nature of conflict: "War ain't got no goddamn rules," he says at one point. And soon after, "They say the world turns itself like a grindstone. Over and over. Don't never stop. Ye may whet yoreself agin it. Or let it grind ye down." I don't think Nathan Bedford Forrest, or anybody else for that matter, ever actually said those words.

The novel also has as one of its main characters a dead Haitian named Henri, who moves among the living as one of them, even though he presumably died at the ferocious battle of Chickamauga. His undead voodoo status gives him the ability to know the future. But his prescience serves no real purpose, either to the other characters or to the story.

Henri claims to be the son of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, about whom Bell published a biography in 2007. Henri seems to be free of the redneck twang, speaking both English and French with a simplicity and an eloquence that are denied every other character except Forrest's wife and his son by a black slave, who speaks as though he had attended Choate and Harvard.

I just wish that in the heat of battle, about which Bell writes with passion but an absolute lack of variety, I hadn't had to keep running to the Oxford English Dictionary to look up "widdershins," "osnaburg" and "barracoon," words that stop us dead in our tracks and make us feel like we're playing Scrabble with Yosemite Sam.

It is also hard to imagine writing about Forrest -- whose relationships with blacks ran from the horribly brutal to the intensely sexual, even loving -- without mentioning his postwar involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, but Bell manages to do it. "Devil's Dream," which takes its name from an old fiddler's jig, is like a 300-page transcript of a loudmouth swearing while he shoots some guy in the face. It purports to be a portrait of a man who once played an important part in the most awful episode that has ever gripped this country. As Bell tells us, by war's end one in every 10 able-bodied Union men was dead, one in every four in the South. Such a towering player in that cataclysmic tragedy as Forrest deserves better.

William Tecumseh Sherman said, "War is hell." Madison Smartt Bell's new novel is no fun, either.

Goolrick's most recent book is "A Reliable Wife."

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