By Peter Behrens
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; C02
By Bruce Murkoff
Knopf. 330 pp. $26.95
Bruce Murkoff's "Red Rain" is a rich, thick stew of a historical novel, a powerfully imagined and thoroughly believable vision of America in its nadir summer of 1864. The protagonist is Will Harp, a young army doctor just returned to his family's farm in the Hudson Valley from the Southwest, where he was an unwilling participant to the U.S. Army's campaign of genocide against the Shoshone Indians.
Dr. Harp arrives home hoping to renew his connection to a beloved landscape and to come to terms with the atrocities he witnessed. But American violence is not so easy to escape. This is, after all, a monstrous time, and the country is wading deep in the bloodbath of the Civil War. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia are doing their best to break each other's spirit in formless battles of attrition.
When the bones of a mastodon are extracted from a swamp adjacent to Harp's land, the troubled young doctor becomes intrigued by prehistory and determined to acquire the ground -- which is also desperately desired by an entrepreneur who has railroad dreams. A mastodon may be ancient history, but any history can be vital and dangerous when dragged out of the swamp, as one farmer learns during an excavation: "It was a huge horn," Murkoff writes, "the damndest one he'd ever seen. He held his hands out just as the sharp, ragged point ran through the soft skin of his upper thigh, just below his right testicle, dragging him upward as it twisted out of the mud."
"Red Rain" is no Ken Burnsesque slab of the American past, delivered in sepia tones with tinkly piano music. Murkoff offers a substantial and resonant vision of what was arguably America's worst summer. Violence and displacement had thoroughly wormed their way into the country's soul, and these characters live in a culture that's entrepreneurial, often deadly, intensely focused on the price of real estate. Had Dostoevsky sailed up the Hudson in the 1860s, he would have recognized this place.
The novel offers a rich cast of secondary characters. Mickey Blessing, the little town's goon-for-hire, has a gentle sister, whose soldier-husband has gone missing after that shapeless, lost battle known as Cold Harbor. There are Irish bullies, and bullies who hate the Irish; Jewish storekeepers; a gay photographer; and a young river-rat orphan boy whose allegiances switch in the fight over land. All these people live in the psychic shadow of the war in Virginia, which seems poisonous and unstoppable.
Murkoff is sensitive to the wildness and the surprising ruggedness of the Hudson Valley landscape, too. Though it was in a section of the country that had been settled for 200 years, his Rondout, N.Y., in 1864 still has the lawlessness of a frontier town, suggesting there may be something in American life -- something buoyant and thrilling, and sick and dangerous, too -- that keeps settlements from ever really jelling into communities.
The novel suffers, though, because Murkoff is unable to resist weaving in too many stories and too many secondary characters. The struggle between Will Harp's passionate desire to dig up the past and his opponent's ruthless determination to bury it and to get on with the business of business is intriguing and suggestive, but it develops rather slowly. The texture of the writing is gorgeous, but it's sometimes clogged with what feels like period detail for its own sake. Consequently, the story's momentum suffers. However, should you want to spend a while in the summer of 1864, "Red Rain" is an engaging and bloody-minded read, a historical novel of great conviction that hints at a dark vision of the American present through its confident handling of our past.
Behrens is author of "The Law of Dreams."