BOOK REVIEW / Slaves to the American dream: Theory of war - Joan Brady: Andre Deutsch pounds 14.99
'In mid-19th-century America men felt themselves free and equal, were free and equal, so far as that is possible outside a society of pure communism. There was poverty and there were even class distinctions, but except for the Negroes there was no permanently submerged class. Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without bootlicking]'
If nothing else, Joan Brady's notably impressive second novel is a counterweight to this type of well-intentioned myth-making. And yet, in a queer sort of way, its own roster of human achievement and indomitable strivings eventually confirm it.
Theory of War is an elemental tale of hatred and revenge, built on an attested historical fact: the slave trade in white children which went on more or less legally for some years after the end of the Civil War. Located in the author's own family history, as an afterword makes clear, the tale extends across three generations. The hero, Jonathan Carrick, is handed over at the age of six to a Kansas tobacco farmer - 'as brutish a creature as the pit of hell ever spewed forth' - and finds himself treated with slightly less indulgence than a farm animal. He is without rights, mocked as a 'bounden boy' by the tobacco farmer's son, denied the chance to develop his considerable intelligence, and unsurprisingly devotes his early life to escape.
After several failed attempts, Jonathan waylays and savagely attacks his tormentor, George, and lights out for the Rocky Mountains. A career as a railroad man and, later, as a low church preacher is given sharper focus by the discovery that George, left for dead by the cottonwoods decades before, is now a prominent senator. Scenting final revenge, Jonathan resolves to track him down.
Jonathan's amanuensis through- out this remorseless pursuit is his granddaughter, Claire, a middle-aged paraplegic obsessed by the silences and fractures that are her grandfather's legacy to his emotionally disturbed descendants. Abetted by her uncle Atlas, a fuddled and questionably competent geriatrician, a stack of Jonathan's coded diaries and her own memories of family history, she is able to unravel a knot of psychological consequence from the urges that led Jonathan to Senator Stoke's silent lawn and his bloody, though ironic, retribution.
The chief characteristic of Brady's style is a sort of biological determinism, heavily reminiscent of the effects that Steinbeck brings off in a novel like The Grapes of Wrath. One of her best passages, for instance, concerns the arrival of a swarm of locusts on the Stokes' dingy smallholding, dropping out of the sky 'like giant hailstones'. Like Steinbeck's eerily dispassionate descriptions of water in flood, there is a sense of desperate inevitability, the uselessness of human endeavour in the face of natural disaster.
If Theory of War has a weakness, it lies only in the titular metaphor. 'A war between two people is not all that different from a war between two countries,' Brady asserts early on, but the references to Clausewitz can occasionally seem forced. In any case, the novel is quite capable of operating without this conspicuous architecture.
Above all, this is a book crammed with literary ghosts. It is impossible to read the accounts of Jonathan travelling west, his experiences as a railroad brakeman or his restless sojourns in the ant- heap of the Western boom towns, without thinking of Jack London or Frank Norris or any of the great chroniclers of the American migration. But Brady is never derivative. She specialises in symbols, queer fragments of past experience brought neatly to life: the frock coat in which George begins his career as a travelling salesman; a country wedding after which the elderly bridegroom discovers that his wife is a hermaphrodite; the primer with which Jonathan teaches himself to read; and burly whores in calico skirts whirling about the Kansas dancehalls.
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 4 Tory activist asked to step down after Labour candidate Rupa Huq is 'manhandled' while questioning Boris Johnson on the campaign trail
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
The C-Word, TV review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest account of a woman enduring a still too common fate
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
The highly NSFW poster for Gaspar Noé's Love makes Nymphomaniac look like 50 Shades
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils