Books: Souls marching on

Russell Banks has revived John Brown's body - and his legend - in an epic blend of truth and myth. Brian Morton on the writer who ranks as Twain's heir
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Literature is lies, and Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter (Secker & Warburg, pounds 16.99) is the story of a man of truth, told by a self-confessed liar. Owen Brown is the son who survived his father's moment of martyrdom and lived on to explain him and his deeds. But how can we trust the tale when the teller admits his failings? How can we hope to judge John Brown, whose body moulders in the grave but whose soul "marches on" into American myth, when the only witness left is a crippled old man shored up by time- serving fictions and a shifting, treacherous memory?

Owen was just one of Brown's 20 children. In 1854, five of the boys had headed out to Kansas to fight the slavers. They were later joined by the Old Man, who upped the ante dramatically when he had five pro-slavery men executed at Pottawatomie. Like Abraham with a steady supply of Isaacs, he sacrificed one son to the great cause in 1856, and two more on the infamous night of the Virginia raid: the moment that marks the final slide into the Civil War, its Sarajevo.

With fewer than two dozen men, six of them black, he formed an anti-slavery militia and, on 18 October 1859, occupied the Harper's Ferry armoury. Robert E Lee broke the siege, and Brown, gravely wounded in the firefight, was hanged alongside four of his men. Two more shared his fate later. Until now, Brown's voice and presence have come to us through Redpath's 1860 hagiography, and the Steven Vincent Benet poem which became "The Battle Hymn of The Republic".

If Hemingway was right in The Green Hills of Africa, and all American literature comes out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Russell Banks is Mark Twain's direct descendant. Most of the things in Cloudsplitter are true, because Owen says they are. This is a man who can remember, after 50 years, the exact inventory of goods and chattels when the Brown family is evicted for their father's debt, but who can give us no firm directions, through his own love and fear, as to whether or not his father was a great hero, a man of triple-tempered principle or a thieving charlatan who reserved his rectitude for home and hearth, and who espoused a selfish pragmatism everywhere else.

There is no mistaking the love or the fear, or that the one is grounded in the other. Much about the Old Man is touchingly honourable, as when he beats the boy 12 times for the theft of a watch, one stroke for each number on the dial, and then has the boy give him 60 strokes, because he has failed as a father.

Brown, though, is naive as well. What he sees as Gilead is Gehenna. The land flowing with honey is a stony waste. The guiding principle of his life is opposition to slavery, but in the end he throws away his life, and that of his sons and kinsman, in that meaningless act of violence.

The events that lead to Harper's Ferry make up the bulk of the book. Owen recalls John Brown's quixotic business dealings, his tannery and his land speculation, his cavalier approach to debt and private property, his guilt-ridden naivety. At times, Owen seems the older and wiser, but for the most part he is too self-conscious and self-serving in his enumeration of key moments: the injury to his arm that sets him apart from certain labour and from certain risk; the loss of virginity to a teenage prostitute, who sucks him and then shows tiny undeveloped breasts (an ironic reprise of his lost mother); the unconvincingly acquired wisdom that nominates him for the sore task of writing to his father that yet another beloved sibling has died. We are never sure of Owen and we need to be surer of him.

Banks has explored this territory before, though never quite as encyclopaedically. In Rule Of The Bone, he created a modern Huck, an untrustworthy storyteller we can trust because he lies cheerfully and sees more because of it. In Continental Drift and The Sweet Hereafter he again delves into the American obsession with innocence and evil, and their interpenetration. Bone, though, is the obvious precursor of Owen Brown, a name close enough in sound to suggest that the germ of Cloudsplitter may lie in the earlier book, with its emphasis on a sort of duplicitous truthfulness. Never before this has Banks made such use of historical record, and never before has he made the process of storytelling the subject of his tale.

Owen is writing to a young historian, and implicitly to her professor. He wants to beguile her. He wants her sympathy for his withered arm and wasted life. And he wants her for a listening Scheherazade, who will not tire of his stories. Only in the telling and the manner of the telling is there truth.

Some aspects of the telling are problematic. The physical setting is never convincingly realised. Cloudsplitter is a great mountain, and it is one of the characters' and the book's difficulties that all landscapes are required to have a symbolic function: fertile, hostile, frozen, stony, mighty, God-bothering. The language of the book is more inconsistent than Owen's rationalisations strictly require. Would he really have talked about being "empowered", of his father's "conflicted" personality? Would the Old Man have spoken of "racist Yankees"? The nightmare of Harper's Ferry is hard for any American to separate from its mythological afterlife, and Banks doesn't quite manage that, largely because the teller is complicit.

What seems at first glance like a grand historical fiction, with the sweep of a still-young continent as its canvas, is actually the claustrophobic recollection and imagining of a sick old man. That is what makes the book wonderful; not what it reveals about Brown or America or abolitionism. It is closer than ever to the treacherous certainties of Twain. Only by making a fiction out of Father's story, only by giving it that "shapely" dynamic, is Owen going to be free of it.

The book's cover catches Owen in 1888 at his cabin in the hills above Pasadena: a horse, goats, a calf, the withered arm hidden in shadow. Behind him, the shack is shored up with timbers as the life was with fictions, and is set up on stilts, presumably to avoid flash-floods but symbolic of the shaky foundations of memory. The mountain behind is as indomitable as the memory of his father must have been, but Owen looks away into the distance, stiff and guarded. Long after his death, in Banks's garrulous narrative, he has finally achieved "the silence of the truth-be-told".

The book is a witness to those who died with John Brown: two more Browns, sons-in-law; a Hazlett, a Kagi, a Leary, a Leeman, a Newby, a Stevens and a Taylor, and finally Dauphin and William Thompson, all in separate shrouds but buried together. And yet the story is the survivor's alone. "My story is my only remaining possibility for an ongoing life, which is how it must be for everyone, living or dead."

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