Henry Ward Beecher was a glib and colorful pulpit-pounder who preached a social gospel -- against slavery, for women's rights -- in a time when America wasn't exactly eager to hear all that. This novel centers on the trial in which Beecher was accused of having had his way with the wife of his protege-rival, one Theodore Tilton. More specifically, perhaps, it is a novel of the manners and mores of mid-19th-century America.
Telling you what "Beecher" is about is a lot easier than telling you what I think of it. Somehow it fails to add up to the sum total of its parts.
Narrated in the first-person voice of Henry Ward Beecher's half-brother, Thomas Kinnicut Beecher -- himself a dispenser of the Gospels, albeit a beer-drinking one who never was quite certain of his, or mankind's salvation -- "Beecher" is replete with workable puns, funny one-liners, and a language at once arcane, vulgar, ironic, self-deprecating and bombastic. Until one reaches the trial of Henry Ward Beecher -- perilously close to halfway through this physically thin book -- little is encountered other than interesting language and a herky-jerky recitation of the history and foibles of a famous American family that produced a houseful of preachers and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the crafter of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
The strength of the book is found in the trial itself. There, marvelously weak human beings justify themselves in the most overblown and santimonious of terms. And this tells us, at least, that author Dan McCall knows how people conduct themselves whether on trial in a court of law or in the court of public opinion. It even tells us whether Henry Ward Beecher was "guilty" -- in the legal sense -- of having stolen the affections of his old friend-rival's wife, though it has a larger purpose in attempting to identify exactly what "guilt" is in the moral and social sense.
However, one has to be careful: so much of the worth of this book depends upon the suspense of the trial, and the testimony of the people in it, that to reveal the verdict and what the verdict portended would be unfair to the potential reader. Sadly, once past the trial itself, the story again meanders without immediate purpose before coming to a rather lame end.
Read at another level, "Beecher" is a study in that precarious balance of love and hate that family members reserve for each other. The narrator, who refers to himself as "Cold Tom" -- an irony he pushes past the limits and which is grounded in a sister's having told him he appeared to be cold to the death of his wife when, indeed, he was numb with grief -- sometimes sees his brother as "comedian . . . buffoon . . . adulterer." At other times, he finds him good and kind, and always full of colorful and fascinating stuff. Yet this is a book of harsh judgements, and, to that extent, it is a true book, a real book. After all, we generally judge those we love against harder standards than we love against harder standards than we apply to everyone else.
But, finally, the problem with "Beecher" is that it is at once windy and introspective; most of all, it is perhaps too cute by half.