Kevin Powers wasn’t old enough to vote when he enlisted in the U.S. Army, but by 2004 he was fighting in Iraq as a machine-gunner. When he got back home to Virginia, he began writing poetry and fiction about his experiences in Mosul and Tal Afar, trying, he said, to give readers “a 10 percent example of what that might be like.”
His debut novel, “The Yellow Birds,” was one of the first about the Iraq War and one of the most celebrated novels of the era. A finalist for a National Book Award, it won praise from Tom Wolfe, Dave Eggers and writer-vets who knew the horrors of battle firsthand. If Powers’s prose sometimes sounded florid, that seemed a blemish worth tolerating for the emotional insight he offered on that quagmire 6,000 miles away.
But now Powers has turned his scope on slavery and the Civil War, the most well-trodden battlefield of American fiction. “A Shout in the Ruins” marches with a phalanx of great novels by Colson Whitehead, Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, Geraldine Brooks, E.L. Doctorow, Paulette Jiles, Charles Frazier, Jeffrey Lent, Michael Shaara, Gore Vidal, Stephen Crane and so many more, stretching all the way back to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Any new writer who tries to join the ranks of these authors risks tripping over their feet or, worse, being set upon by the cliches that scamper after them like mangy dogs.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“A Shout in the Ruins” moves between two time frames separated by almost a century. In 1956, a very old black man is displaced from his house by the new Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike carving through Virginia. With a suitcase, a few ancient possessions and some faded memories, he sets off to solve the mystery of his origin.
That quiet, pensive search is effectively obliterated by the novel’s other story line, set around the Civil War, which is far more developed — and considerably more dramatic. The geography, the weaponry and the cause are entirely different from the Iraq War, but Powers brings to Virginia battle scenes the same searing immediacy he brought to his stories of carnage in “The Yellow Birds.” Once again, we come to feel the mix of agony and absurdity suffered by soldiers caught between the tectonic plates of history. And, pulling back from those poignant individual stories, Powers also creates a haunting vision of Virginia in economic and social collapse, a calamity that strips away the last bulwarks of civilization, inspiring some men to even greater barbary and others to further commercial exploitation.
One such man is Antony Levallois, an ambitious plantation owner near Richmond. Weary of raping his slaves, male and female, he thinks it might be time to take a wife because he was “getting to a point where the absence of a woman in his life diminished him in the eyes of other men.” And so this vampiric character sets his sights on his neighbor’s land and his neighbor’s daughter, Emily.
We first spot Emily as a ghost flitting across the Great Dismal Swamp, but Levallois initially sees her as a beautiful young woman who represents “both a past and future that could be possessed.” How their wretched relationship will play out is foreshadowed in the smoldering opening paragraphs of the novel, but another romance, pure and courageous, draws us through these chapters and encourages us to imagine something better. Among the many people Levallois controls is Rawls, a hobbled slave in love with a fellow slave named Nurse. These two highly sympathetic characters must negotiate the whims of various masters in hopes of surviving long enough to realize the promise of the Civil War.
At one point, when Nurse is sold off to another plantation, Rawls is determined to find her again. An older slave warns him to give up, but Rawls insists, “I need her. . . . I love her.”
“No place for love in this world, son.”
“I’ll make a place. Don’t you worry. Where is she?”
“This world’s gonna break your damn heart, boy.”
“It’s been broke already.”
On Broadway, such earnest dialogue would cue these two to break into a soulful duet, but here it just signals an awkward flaw in this overwrought novel: Powers has curdled the gothic tradition into a thick paste and spread it all over these pages. Rather than highlighting the perversity of slavery, his sententious prose strains to upstage it. We’re told, for instance, that “desire, unlike pain, was something that no one, black or white, would ever develop a resistance to while the sun still sat as center of the heavens.” That ornate line — with its melodramatic allusion to Copernican astronomy — is typical of this novel.
One character’s face looks “like it was permanently on the precipice of discovering that the true nature of the world was one of sadness and isolation, even when surrounded by those we love.” Honestly, do you now have a clearer impression of that face?
Another character’s “grief for himself was replaced by a grieving for the world. He felt as though he knew all the names that had come before him and all that would follow. He put the names on his breath and with each exhalation he said them in a language beyond speech.” This is neither profundity nor poetry; it’s merely posturing.
Such bombast was detectable in “The Yellow Birds,” like mold in the basement, but here, left unchecked, it’s overtaken the whole structure. That’s particularly lamentable because Powers can be such a forceful writer when he resists the temptation to substitute grandiose gestures for his own hard-won wisdom. When he succumbs, we just get shouting and ruin.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and the host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Kevin Powers will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Kevin Powers
Little, Brown. 261 pp. $26