A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Tag: growing up

Drums, by James Boyd

As one begins this 1925 novel, one immediately becomes immersed in the world of the 1770s, just before the American Revolution. And one also becomes exposed to that world of more traditional literature that reigned until the 1920s. It was usually a world of rich description and little forward movement. Far different from what is soon to evolve, in which human beings drive the action, in which the story must move on.

Here, the initial effort is to create the world of rural North Carolina in the months before the Revolution. What concerns the people of that era? What are their lives like? What are their homes like, their fields, their clothes, their food? So much detail has been researched by this author to enable him to recreate that world of 150 years earlier. So much that it is clear the author wants his readers to experience that world—before he wants them to identify with his main character, the teenager Johnny Fraser, an insecure boy who respects his father and mother and is unaware as yet of the challengers of the adult world beyond the limits of the family farm.

But soon the novel will introduce both him and the reader to that adult world, beginning with rural North Carolina where the British administer that colony but where some of the local people are unhappy with the new taxes and their own lack of political control. And where tension rises as word reaches them about a rebellion in the North.

Much of the novel focuses on the youthful Johnny. His parents send him away from their farm to a local seaport, Edenton, where a preacher, Dr, Clapton, educates him in Latin and prepares him to be a true gentleman, not a farmer like themselves. There, Johnny meets more worldly people, and another kind of education begins. He meets and is impressed by Captain Tennant, the British officer who represents the King and administers the colony, although he is confused by Tennant’s sassy daughter Eve. He meets the worldly and friendly Captain Flood, who transports him to and from his family farm. He meets the distinguished Sir Nathaniel, who raises horses and organizes cockfights, and is impressed by him, as well as by the wealthy and pretentious Wylie Jones. He also meets the Merrillees, and is fascinated by, but confused by, their beautiful daughter Sally.

The character of Johnny ends up being elusive, much as was the political thinking of that era in North Carolina. Throughout the novel, in fact, Johnny is analyzing the faults of others, as well as doubting himself and his own faults. He also sees people’s good qualities, and he strives to adapt many of those for himself. But he is confused by the various attitudes he observes among his fellow North Carolinians when word first arrives of the unrest and then the military action in the North. For they reveal mixed feelings about whether one should be loyal to the King, or whether one should strive to be free of England.

Johnny has even greater difficulty, however, is in reacting on a more personal level to the attitudes shown by young women, particularly Eve Tennant and Sally Merrillee. Note, however, that there is no discussion here of the status or the freedom of their black slaves. Indeed, the care given here is that the dialects of the Negroes be as accurate as possible—along with the spoken language found in the rural South or in the formal clubs of London. Any discussion of the rights of slaves does not arise, not until nearly a century later, and then only in the North.

Meanwhile, when news of dissension does spread southward, Johnny’s family sends him to England, both to enable him to avoid making a choice in the potential conflict, as well as to preserve some family investments abroad. And that London world is richly drawn as well, from its social scene to its political scene, as well as from its pubs to its clubs. Once again one marvels at the brilliance with which that far different world is captured. For Boyd again captures the details, in order to bring that distant European reality to life—a sedate and peaceful life for Johnny, which is soon disrupted by battle scenes. These are aboard an American warship under the captaincy of John Paul Jones. For Johnny has at last chosen sides in the American rebellion. And, following a brief interval in Brest, France, Johnny rejoins Jones and his crew on a newly refurbished Bonhomme Richard, which encounters a British warship and overwhelms it in a famous battle.

Whereupon, a wounded Johnny returns to North Carolina to heal, and to witness the arrival of the Revolution in the houses and taverns back home. And we realize that this novel is not so much a portrait of Johnny Fraser as it is a portrait of the Revolution seen through the eyes of Johnny Fraser. He has been less the hero of our novel than the vehicle with which we watch a cross section of society experience this dramatic period in American history. The novel itself is not dramatic, even as the events themselves range from mundane on one level to truly dramatic on another. In fact, we do not even identify with Johnny, even as we see that world through his eyes. And, at the end, when we do see in him a final maturity, there is also an open-ended conclusion about how his life will continue, especially a love life that has until now been unfulfilled.

This novel has been called “the best novel of the American Revolution ever written.” And I would not argue. Well, I loved the smaller scale April Morning by Hoard Fast, but not least because it was about the Battle of Concord and Lexington, near where I grew up. And, in fact, to support Drums’ pedigree is a later decision by Scribner’s to bring out a special edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The title, Drums, refers to the drums of war. Before he leaves for England, a youthful Johnny encounters an old Indian who explains that the drumming he hears is that of nearby Indians who have heard reports of rebellion in the colony, and their reaction to the rumors is to send out a message, as they have long done when their own tribes prepare for battle. Boyd also recalls this incident in the last lines of the novel, when Johnny, hailing a distant soldier, “raised his stiff arm in the Indians salutation….[and] the distant figure lifted a long black rifle against the sky.” It is a final touch of the artistry that went into this novel. (March, 2019)

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Revival, by Stephen King

What I like about Stephen King is that he begins his novels in the real world. In this 2014 work, it is the world of six-year-old Jamie Morton who is a typical kid in a typical Maine family. There, he encounters Charles Jacobs, a local minister fascinated by electricity, but who will lose his faith and leave town when his wife and child die accidentally.

Jamie is the hero of this novel, and the narrator. We watch as he grows up amid his family and discovers that he lives in what is often a deceptive world. It is also a real world, however, and, as the boy matures, he struggles to make his way into that real world. When the author grounds him as a rhythm guitarist in a series or rock bands, it is not surprising. King has long created fictional heroes familiar with rock music. Music, however, is no longer just atmosphere; it is now his hero’s profession.

But this is not a novel about music; it is more a novel about faith. Or, rather, about the tensions between science and faith. And about how that tension can drive men’s actions. Until it becomes an obsession. And how clinging to that obsession can drive one man into searching for a world beyond reality. A man like Charles Jacobs.

As Jamie make his way through the musical world, he succumbs to the temptation of heroin. But he also tracks down the former minister and discovers he is a flim-flam man at carnivals, and is using electricity as a come on to attract an audience. And so, when Jamie collapses from his last dose, Jacobs is there to help. He even takes Jamie under his wing and uses that same strange electricity to cure him of his drug habit. Which puts Jamie in debt to him. But also plants in Jamie some kind of link.

After they separate, however, Jamie begins to suffer side effects. And when, later, he learns that Jacobs has become a famous preacher, touring the land, performing miracle cures, and growing rich, Jamie becomes curious. What is Jacobs up to? His doubts increase when he learns that some of the cures have produced terrible side effects in a few of those treated.

Up until then, Jamie has lead a normal life on the rock and roll fringes. There is nothing about the horror to come, only teasers about what Jacobs is up to. All we already know is that Jacobs has lost his faith in God after the accidental death in Maine of his wife and son, and that he is fascinated by the power of electricity.

But as he begins to learn about the violent side effects to Jacobs’ miracle cures, Jamie decides he must confront the man in behalf of all those he apparently helped. At their meeting, Jacobs explains he has given up curing people, because he has developed a powerful, new “secret electricity.” But he will explain no more. He even tries to hire Jamie, but Jamie declines, because he does not know Jacob’s end goal. He also sees that, in his intensity, Jacobs has taken on the aura of a mad scientist, although neither Jamie nor the reader understands where the events of this novel are headed.

But that madness does become obvious in the final chapters, when Jacobs contacts Jamie, knowing the power of that old spell. But what he says is that he needs Jamie’s help. First, to cure Astrid, an ex-lover of Jamie from his youth. And then to use his secret electricity to actually raise someone from the dead. King himself has said his inspiration, in part, was Frankenstein. And, indeed, the patient in the second case is named Mary, as in Shelley. Jacobs says he intends to revive her, and so learn what being dead is like. It is his way of defying the faith he has lost, and using the power of science to discover the meaning of death.

But, as in Frankenstein, and in many horror tales, the experiment gets out of control. Now, death itself enters their laboratory—and King goes overboard in depicting the afterlife. Indeed, he confronts the reader with the most terrible horror he can conceive. What if death were like this he is saying, perhaps even chuckling inside. It is as far from the world of reality, a world King himself has established in this novel, that one can get. But I see it more as King testing the waters of horror than rejecting any religious belief in paradise. He is a horror writer here, not a philosopher. He retains his only touch of reality with the implication that there are people who will use religion to achieve ignoble ends.

This novel is more successful for me when it is in the real world, the world of Jamie as a six-year old and growing up in Maine in a loving family, then as an adolescent fascinated by sex with Astrid, and then succumbing to drugs as he makes his way into the world of rock. There are hints of miracle cures to come, but at first Jacobs is just feeling his way toward achieving them. King is so good at reality, at day-to-day life, at family relationships, that the reader is committed to his world—even as he suspects that King is leading him toward something…unworldly, perhaps even…awful.

Of course, when it comes, the fictional world of Jamie’s Maine that had so enthralled us vanishes. Instead, the revelation of the horror of the afterlife takes us beyond the world of reality. It is a world that reeks, even, of absurdity. Moreover, King needs a final chapter to explain what has followed that moment of horror—with its visions, its monster, its screaming, and its gunshots. And what has happened to Jamie as a result. But that chapter is a crutch too many author use to justify the sins of their imagination.

On finishing this novel, my message to Stephen King is to abandon the physical reality of horror. To, instead, create a reality that carries an implication of horror, like a dome or a time machine, or else to create the horror within the mind of his main character. If the reader has identified with that character, then that should be enough.

However, I have long thought that King could write a serious literary novel, if he wished. This novel could be a beautiful story of growing up. Why is he so attached to the horror genre? To please his audience? Surely, he has earned enough. Does he lack the confidence of such an attempt? Or is the interest simply not there? Because he has the literary tools. And he understands the whims and desires and fears of people. Ah, well, I have three more of his genre novels on my shelves. I must learn to be patient. (June, 2018)