At the center of Peter Behrens’s new novel, “Carry Me,” throbs the bloody heart of history. Whether in descriptions of men falling through the English skies from burning zeppelins or thugs marching a trouserless Jewish lawyer through the streets of Frankfurt, Germany, Behrens’s prose thrills to the indelible and the irrevocable.
Consider what Hermann “Billy” Lange first sees and hears at the end of the Great War when he’s deported from England with his Irish mother and German father: “All around us people were calling ‘Auf Wiedersehen!’ — the first German phrase I grasped the meaning of and would remember. How many million Auf Wiedersehens had been bawled and sobbed in Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof? The coal-smoky air was choked with Auf Wiedersehen, the impressive ironwork painted with it, the vaulting glass roof lacquered and smeared not only with pigeon s--- but also with Auf Wiedersehen.” That Behrens colors Billy’s hopeful arrival with the taint of separation and sorrow is fitting because even if Billy will spend the better part of 20 years in Frankfurt, he — like the whole of Europe — isn’t done with difficult farewells, not by a long shot.
In the meantime, though, there are horses — beautiful, thundering beasts that pound down gorgeous racetracks and trot along paths through the forests of Billy’s idyllic new home. “It’s the beauty of the thing itself, their bright eyes and bright coats, the drumbeat of hooves, the squeaks and snorts of young thoroughbreds breathing hard.” Under the direction of his father, Buck, and sponsored by his immensely wealthy godfather, Baron Hermann Weinbrenner, the racehorses of Weinbrenner’s estate flourish for a time, and so do just about all those connected to them. Billy’s mother helps build a magnificent art collection with the Baron’s wife; Billy meets and falls under the spell of the Baron’s fascinating daughter Karin; Buck — a former yacht captain who was accused of spying in England — doesn’t just catch his breath, he thrives.
Unmitigated loveliness in 1920s Germany would be grotesque, but the reader, who has followed Billy and his family through severe challenges to get there, understands all too well that this will be only a temporary refuge. The fact that Billy and his family are gentiles, while the Baron and his family are Jews in possession of a sprawling estate, not to mention a world-class art collection, makes clear what horrors lie in store for them.
Behrens is so fine at both sweeping and granular evocations of history, so good at vividly and economically painting his minor players, that one wishes he had found a way to attend more effectively to all his characters. If Billy, who narrates, is well-rounded and compelling, the major figures around him don’t always lift fully off the page. Even when they do — Billy’s mother, for example, is spirited, mysterious and brave in the face of Buck’s imprisonment in the first half of the novel — they fade alarmingly, as if, having served their purpose, the book no longer needs them.
Most crucially, Karin, the great love of Billy’s life, remains a cipher all the way through “Carry Me.” Behrens might have done something interesting here around the subject of unrequited or even impossible love in a time of war, but he doesn’t dig deeply enough. Even when Billy and Karin become lovers in 1938, she remains distant both to Billy and to the reader — not so much fascinatingly unknowable as frustratingly unknown. Her tendency to vanish for many pages of the novel after doing something striking, combined with Billy’s inherent reluctance to assert his desire, creates a kind of asymptote at the heart of their relationship that is never fully examined.
Something significant about their romance was apparently meant to have been suggested by their early shared love of the popular Wild West novels of the German writer Karl May and his depictions of El Llano Estacado, an actual region of the southwest United States. Behrens never makes clear, however, beyond occasional mentions, why this childhood obsession would continue to exercise Billy and Karin as rational, engaged adults. If history and “Carry Me” make it devastatingly clear why anyone would have wanted to get as far away from Germany as possible, Behrens doesn’t convince us that El Llano Estacado would be the couple’s chosen destination.
Still, this doesn’t keep Behrens from working more of his verbal magic or the reader from feeling a sense of vivid, if all too fleeting, hope: “The past was behind us,” Billy says. “The Plymouth was taking us in the right direction, toward the future. Sage smelled like incense, and small, hasty, finely tuned animals were moving like our best dreams across open country.”
Laird Hunt is the author, most recently, of “Neverhome.”
By Peter Behrens
Pantheon. 443 pp. $26.95