BOOK REVIEW / Slaves to the American dream: Theory of war - Joan Brady: Andre Deutsch pounds 14.99

OF THE various illusions which have attached themselves to modern American history, that of the land of opportunity is the most persistent. The log cabin to White House view of individual destiny may have withered a little recently - though the Clinton presidency is a reminder not to forget it entirely. Even so, anyone whose conception of mid-19th-century America is based, say, on a reading of Mark Twain or Bret Harte's tales of the prospecting camps, is likely to come away with the impression of a tough but fundamentally decent life, full of keen-eyed young men 'making good' in an environment where 'freedom' was something more than a politician's abstract. Orwell's essay Inside the Whale restates this classic assumption of old-world liberalism with unusual fervour:

'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.

(Photograph omitted)