Giving the Story of John Brown To Its Only Survivor

Cloudsplitter , by Russell Banks. Harper Flamingo, 758 pages, $27.50.

Russell Banks does not know why he is not a drunk or a bum, or a man caught in a hardscrabble north woods life repairing oil burners or plowing snow, drinking heavily at the local, eyeing the waitresses, missing his children who live with his ex-wife who still suffers scars from his beatings. He does not know why he is not a man to whom death has come, delivered by rifle shot or boot leather.

Or perhaps he does know why, but cannot tire of telling it afresh, refashioning his surprise that through the agency of some grace, or dumb luck, he is in fact a distinguished American novelist and a professor at Princeton, a summer sage of the Adirondacks, husband to the superb poet Chase Twichell and father of four. It’s not that Mr. Banks romanticizes the fallen life; rather, he polishes to a gleam some guilt about the fate of survivors in general, slips it into the down-vest pocket of his characters like a spent shell casing and counts on an expiation that can only come through an understanding facilitated by fiction.

Mr. Banks may have high hopes for art, but he is far from an esthete. Now 57, he grew up in working-class New England towns, the son of a plumber. His parents divorced when he was 12; a brother was killed after hopping a train that crashed. Mr. Banks, in between university stints, was a plumber, too, off and on. He married early (and later, often); dabbled with painting but then found fiction, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship. His breakthrough came in 1985 with Continental Drift , which told the tale of Bob Dubois, a New Hampshire native who gives up a dead-end job, heads to Florida, tangles with Haitians and ends up dead. The novel signs off with an authorial statement that speaks frankly of Mr. Banks’ ambitions for fiction: “Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives-no, especially wholly invented lives-deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book’s objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.”

Such faith might seem a little much in these days of Irony, but Mr. Banks, since then, has kept that faith in fiction while incorporating it more artfully into his characters. In Affliction , a novel about the self-destruction of New Hampshireman Wade Whitehouse, Wade’s citified professor brother is the narrator: “I tell [this story] for them, for the others as much as for myself. They want, through the telling, to regain him; I want only to be rid of him. His story is my ghost life, and I want to exorcise it.” In The Sweet Hereafter , Mr. Banks projects the redemptive value of storytelling onto the mourning survivors in a small town that has lost 14 of its children to a bus crash. And now, with Cloudsplitter , his magisterial book about the abolitionist John Brown, Mr. Banks has chosen a historical period and revolutionary figure that advance his meditations on just what distinguishes the good from the evil, the living from the dead. Tellingly, he gives the story to a survivor.

John Brown was born of poor Yankee stock in 1800 in Torrington, Conn. At the age of 12, after witnessing a black playmate receive a merciless beating from his master, young Brown determined that the ownership of one man by another was a sin. In 1850, Brown and his sons would go first to Kansas to do battle with the forces that were bent upon seeing the territory admitted as a slaveholding state. There were executions in the dead of night from broadswords wielded by the Browns. Eventually, with the financial backing of “the secret six,” a group of well-heeled Northern abolitionists, Brown planned to take over the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The goal was to send the alarm to the surrounding plantations, attract fleeing slaves, arm them and aid their flight to Canada. Of course, in October 1859, they failed. Two of his sons, Oliver and Watson, were killed in the uprising, and Brown was captured, tried and hanged. But one son, Owen Brown, escaped. He is Mr. Banks’ narrator.

John Brown has remained elusive as a man, and his motives, even his sanity, have been the matter of some dispute. Historians cannot avoid approaching Brown ideologically, fitting him into some theory of the Civil War. Novelists, too, have been attracted to the thundering, avenging Brown, most recently in Bruce Olds’ Raising Holy Hell , an effort tripped up by unaccountable fits of contemporizing: “His bib of albumen beard … is brindled with blood as he unspoons himself from his wife,” etc.

But by giving the story to a son to tell, Mr. Banks manages a perspective that humanizes Brown, making of him a father, a husband, a farmer. This brings the reader closer to Brown, and eventually, as the wild, visionary biblical exegete with Old Testament fervor emerges, it seems as natural as the smoke from a Sharps rifle. Owen, aged 35, having miraculously escaped the blood bath of Harpers Ferry, makes his way to safe haven on a California mountaintop. From there he writes his book in the form of a long letter to Katherine Mayo, a research assistant for an early Brown biographer. Owen promises to explain the true objectives of his father.

But he has no ready thesis, and neither does Mr. Banks, which may have something to do with this book’s inordinate length, however gorgeous its execution. Owen unburdens himself of decades of fevered memories and delusions; he struggles to understand his own religious and political beliefs, and much of his tale involves untangling himself from his father. Along the way, Owen re-creates all of the major events in which his father was involved, ranging from his crucial clandestine Chambersburg quarry conversation with the freed slave and great abolitionist Frederick Douglass to the Kansas killings to the frenzied hours inside the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Mr. Banks’ prose is muscular and plain-spoken, believably the voice of Owen Brown, with a period simplicity modestly touched by poetry.

Whether Owen reaches an understanding of what separates his father from the historical John Brown, and whether Mr. Banks has made one more step in understanding why some die and others live and tell stories, remain open questions. There is no new John Brown here, but in Mr. Banks’ hands he does emerge as a freshly minted enigma, freed from the customary ideological straplets, even if securing no new answers.

When Owen Brown muses toward the end of his long correspondence with Katherine Mayo, it could just as well be Mr. Banks, racked by years of research and awful imaginings: “This morning I woke in the dark, and my cabin was cold as a grave, and my heart leapt up when I thought again that I had died in the night and had joined Father and the others in purgatory. But then the chalky light of dawn drifted through the window like a fog and erased the comforting clarity of darkness, and I saw where I was, crumpled under my filthy blanket in a corner-a scrawny old man with matted beard and hair lying in his dirty underclothes in an unheated, bare room, my shelves, cot, chair, and tabletop covered with paper spilling onto the floor. I saw that I am nothing but paper.” And what the reader feels most intensely is the desperation of survivors and of a novelist who speaks for them.

Giving the Story of John Brown To Its Only Survivor