MR. LINCOLN'S WARS
A Novel in Thirteen Stories
By Adam Braver
Morrow. 303 pp. $23.95
It is unlikely that any American president has been the subject of more biographies and (yes) novels than Abraham Lincoln. Writers as disparate as Gore Vidal, Carl Sandburg and the British essayist and travel writer Jan Morris have all weighed in on the 16th president. And why not? Lincoln was eloquent, resolute, wistful, wise.
In an era long before sound-bite journalism, he understood the importance of brevity. He endured great personal tragedy. And he had a moral compass that in the end was supremely accurate: He ended the barbarism of slavery, and he preserved the Union. Now Adam Braver has offered us another interpretation of the world that surrounded the great rail-splitter in his debut collection of short stories, Mr. Lincoln's Wars. There are 12 stories and one novella here, all of which feature Lincoln himself or someone whose life has been touched either by direct contact with the president or through what the character perceives as Mr. Lincoln's war.
The best of the tales are richly imagined and full of surprising idiosyncratic minutiae. In "Crybaby Jack's Theory," the drunken Jack tries to warn the White House on the day Lincoln is shot that the president is in danger. He knows this thanks to a premonition he had while enduring a hangover on that fateful morning with his one-eyed Union veteran pal Cy (short for Cyclops) Harrison. The absolute impossibility of Jack's convincing anyone that Lincoln is in danger is rendered with wondrous irony, but what makes the story soar is Jack's decidedly unsubtle opinions about everything. The son of one of the men who handle the horses at the Senate stables, Jack recalls how little he thought of his father when he was 15: "He didn't really hate his father, that would be too small; at the moment he detested everything about the world that he lived in, where picking three-month-old [excrement] out of the ass of a horse was considered patriotism, where it made a man like his father indeed stupidly proud, and ignorance was the fuel that kept it turning."
Likewise, in "The Necropsy," a novella that examines Lincoln's death from the perspectives of John Wilkes Booth, the surgeons who perform the autopsy on the president, and widow Mary Todd Lincoln, Braver manages to combine the grisly horror of the assassination with almost vaudevillian humor. Scenes in which the doctors pull back the skin from Lincoln's skull or chisel through the cranium to his brain are juxtaposed with convicted co-conspirator Mary Surratt telling Booth to "break a leg" as he heads off to Ford's Theater that historic evening. (This joke will be echoed later in the novella as well, when Booth is imagining what his more esteemed, more successful thespian father would have said to him after the assassination: "Know your surroundings. You don't 'literally break a leg,' you ninny. That's what separates the greats from the rest. They never trip onstage.") At the same time, Mary Todd Lincoln's desperate, unanswered pleas for a lock of her late husband's hair are deeply moving, and provide a humane midpoint between the clinical detachment of the scenes with the surgeons and the comic burlesque that surrounds Booth.
Other stories are less successful, and the characters -- including Lincoln -- feel inauthentic. In "The Sad and Familiar Ballad of Captain Carson West," the son of a Chicago newspaperman enlists late in the war and manages not to kill anybody -- until he grows angry at the news of Lincoln's assassination and shoots in the head the Raleigh tart with whom he has just achieved a good measure of carnal satisfaction. In "A Letter to President Lincoln from a Good Girl," a young widow writes the president to thank him for the war that took her despicable husband's life; she recounts for Lincoln the way she made love to one of her husband's fellow soldiers while he told her in precise detail how her hated spouse had died. " 'And what happened when the cannon got him?' I grabbed the behind of the young boy."
Despite these occasional missteps, Braver has produced a collection that is generally satisfying. I did not discover in here a new Lincoln, but more times than not I did find myself fascinated by the people Braver has created to surround him. *
Chris Bohjalian is the author of eight novels, including "The Buffalo Soldier," which is being published in paperback this month.