THOMAS KENEALLY has fashioned his somber and compelling new novel from the rich materials left by the participants in our Civil War. With skill and acuity the veteran Australian writer has woven stories of fictional characters with those of historical figures (chiefly Stonewall Jackson and his staff) to depict life in war-torn Virginia in the summer of 1862.
The long, intricately structured book, awash in battle gore and athrob with sexuality, is handled with scarcely a bobble. Despite these traditional ingredients of superficial best sellers, the book is not tawdry; Keneally refuses to truckle to low public tastes. Though he is not difficult to read, his standards are high, his sense of realism is keen, and the book makes Gone With the Wind seem soap opera by comparison.
Confederates is not a great novel. It lacks the grandeur or nobility of Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, or Joseph S. Pennell's The History of Rome Hanks, but it has sure, powerful narrative movement and swift, telling delineation of character, even of its bit players. The sense of time and place is strong; native hobbyists of the war will read with growing surprise the work of a stranger who has so successfully penetrated the intimacies of a most peculiarly American folklore and heritage.
Most of the women, it should be said, are incipient or borderline nymphomaniacs, and there is plenty of illicit sex, ranging from the casual coupling of a Confederate colonel with a willing housewife in Frederick, Maryland, to the methodical seduction of the fictional hero's wife by an itinerant portrait painter. The sex scenes are muted by today's standards, but never unrealistic.
The author's mature understanding of human nature provides a succession of insights into relationships between men and women, whites and blacks, soldiers and officers, northerners and southerners. In this and other ways, the book is impressive. Even (perhaps especially) in the handling of exotic characters, Keneally is persuasive.
The reader comes to feel that he is looking at the landscapes of the war itself, through the smoky haze of battle that is somehow ever-present, even in remote back-home settings: "To all of them it became a morning in a foul dream. The verges of the cornfield were heaped with mounds of poor flesh, and fences with their crops of dead had been shattered by cannon. And timber and grey cloth and blue cloth and human remnants lay in heaps that must be climbed. . . . Usaph trod on a mat of Christian boys, all of them defaced this way and that by cannister and shell pieces. He was too close to them now to get away from the fact that they were there. But after a step or two he did not look, there was no sense in picking a path. . . . When he came out of the north end of the corn, the air seemed thicker with balls, yet every one of them seemed meant for someone else and not for Usaph Bumpass. The whole earth of Maryland was sown with the young in blue and butternut, and their seed was dead inside them."
Memorable scenes are sprinkled throughout: the execution of Confederate deserters forced to dig their own graves; the solicitation of troops by whores; the bizarre Mrs. Lesage, a mad mystic, and healer of sickly women, who beds down with one of the minor characters; the return home to his farm in the great Valley of Virginia of the hero, Usaph Bumpass, badly wounded, filthy, and crawling with lice; there is also a painful scene of Usaph's Aunt Sarrie Muswell performing an abortion on Usaph's faithless wife, Ephie, with the aid of a country herbalist-midwife -- and a long needle.
The historical fighting men, whose exploits are sandwiched between the scenes of rapidly unfolding subplots involving civilians, are as well realized as the fictional beings who are their counterparts and occasional acquaintances.
The singular genius Stonewall Jackson has seldom, if ever, been portrayed so effectively in fiction; most of his aberrations as depicted are drawn directly from testimony of the young men who surrounded him during the war, but Keneally makes the most of his material, and Jackson lives and breathes. Jackson's hypochondria, his stern religious creed, his almost psychotic concern for secrecy, are ingredients that render him one of the most interesting figures of the period; the author also hhandles these traits with the aplomb of a juggler accustomed to more demanding feats. Less ambitious are portraits of Lee, "Popeye" Ewell and other Confederate heroes of this second year of the war.
The book's most successful character is Ephie Bumpass, whom Usaph has rescued from the Carolina swamps, a sensuous beauty who has been victimized by male predators since childhood. Her waywardness is detailed so effectively that even the climactic scenes -- the seduction that leads to the abortion; her reunion with her husband -- are satisfying. Another well-realized leading character is Mrs. Dora Whipple, a nurse who spurns marriage with a titled British war correspondent, conducts a brief affair with him, is then arrested and hanged as a Yankee spy.
Keneally's artistry, performed with a sure, confident hand, prevents these unlikely ingredients from becoming claptrap. His accomplishment is genuine, and Confederates should find wide readership here, as it has in England, where sympathizers of the Lost Cause abound to this day.