By E.L. Doctorow

Random House. 363 pp. $25.95

Rarely does one come across accounts of the Civil War as level-headed, generous and well-intentioned as E.L. Doctorow's challenging new novel, The March. It might almost have been written as a corrective to the steady stream of poorly researched, sentimental romances of Southern gentility (and even, occasionally, steely-eyed Northern righteousness) that makes up the bulk of the genre. The March conjures up the War of Secession -- also known as the War Between the States and the War of Northern Aggression -- as vividly as any contemporary account I've read, and more plausibly than most. Devotees of our nation's darkest hour, as well as that subset of Confederacy buffs willing to entertain the possibility that all may not have been roses in the antebellum South, will find a great deal to admire in its pages.

The March follows William Tecumseh Sherman's 36th Army on its cataclysmic march through Georgia, then up into the swamplands and hill country of the Carolinas. The narrative does not confine itself to Sherman's point of view, however, or even to that of Sherman's army; in fact, it doesn't confine itself to any set cast of characters at all. Doctorow attempts to inhabit as wide a range of experience as possible, and to meet the peculiar demands of this ambition, the point of view shifts every few pages. This is where its greatest appeal and gravest weaknesses lie.

The novel begins from the point of view of Sherman's victims, with a beautifully rendered depiction of a Southern family frantically abandoning their home (and their considerable holding of slaves) in the face of the advancing Union front. John Jameson and his wife, Mattie -- who will surface, periodically, as a sort of archetype of the privileged South -- have only moments to pack a lifetime of possessions into two small carriages before their plantation is overrun, looted and put to the torch. Our attention has barely settled on this couple, however, when it shifts to the opposing camp. After only a few pages, we watch the Jamesons' carriages roll away through the eyes of Pearl, John Jameson's 15-year-old daughter by one of his slaves: "She waited in the peace and silence of their having gone. She felt the cool breeze on her legs. Then the air grew still and warm and, after a moment in which the earth seemed to draw its breath, the morning sun spread in a rush over the plantation. . . . Mama, she said. I free. . . . I free, I free like no one else in de whole worl but me."

Pearl will go on to become the nearest thing to a protagonist The March possesses, but for now, she is touched on only briefly, followed in quick succession by a Union lieutenant, a Confederate deserter, a high-minded judge's daughter and a convict. The result, in a less careful novel, might prove too daunting, but Doctorow has always been among the most accessible of our literary novelists, and in his hands this multitude of voices gives a wonderful sense of breadth and tumult to the narrative. Sherman's army becomes less an assembly of individual human beings than a sort of meteorological phenomenon, hideous and sublime. The effect, when it works, can be exhilarating.

The approach is not without disadvantages, however. The abundance of players and events and the extreme economy required by the novel's architecture inevitably reduce much of the supporting cast to little more than sketches, often to cliches. Tolstoy adopted a similar technique in War and Peace, as did John Dos Passos in his United States Trilogy, but Dos Passos had little interest in individuals -- he claimed the entire country as his protagonist, after all -- and War and Peace is more than a thousand pages long. One can't help feeling, during The March's more rote passages, that the author, for all his admirable humanism, is missing the trees for the forest.

Perhaps the most precisely drawn of The March's many characters is also the most incidental to the story: Wrede Sartorius, a German immigrant working as a field surgeon in Sherman's army, whose interest in war is purely clinical. He becomes fascinated, then obsessed, by a genuine medical wonder: a corporal, Albion Simms, who has miraculously survived a horrific injury to the brain. Sartorius's interactions with Simms are among the most haunting in the novel, and the corporal's condition serves as a deeply affecting metaphor for the psychic cost of war:

"Who did you say I was?

Albion Simms.

No, I can't remember. There is no remembering. It's always now.

Are you crying?

Yes. Because it's always now. What did I just say?

It's always now.


Albion, in tears, held his bar and nodded. Then he rocked himself back and forth, back and forth. It's always now, he said. It's always now."

This subtle, almost elegiac exchange is miles removed from the more epic moments in The March -- the battle of Bentonville, the razing of Columbia, the great diaspora of the slaves -- but it's exactly in such unexpected, almost tangential scenes that the novel comes closest to realizing its ambitions. Much as in Ragtime, another uneven, uncompromising American mosaic, The March's greatest rewards lie hidden in its digressions. And it's a credit to Doctorow's skill -- both as a writer and an entertainer -- that the task of following the narrative through so many loops and curlicues comes to seem, as the book twists willfully toward its end, something like a privilege. *

John Wray is the author of "Canaan's Tongue."