Reviewed by Matthew Simmons
150 years after the end of the Civil War, I sit in Columbia, South Carolina. The banner that the local university’s football coach once called “That Damn Flag” has come down, to the joy of some and the consternation of others. In the spring of this year, I worked on a project about the burning of Columbia in February 1865; this project forced me to reflect on the messy, confusing realities of a War that was always, even as it was unfolding, as mythic as it was real. At the center of my project was William Tecumseh Sherman, perhaps the fullest embodiment of the mythic quality of the War. As a result of his campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas, Sherman was, to some, a great hero who facilitated the end of the War and restored the Union, and, to others, an evil devil of unjust destruction and violation.
In Jeffrey Stayton’s debut novel, This Side of the River, this mythic devil-Sherman serves as the starting point. Set in the latter half of 1865, Sherman’s marches have left large portions of the South in ashes, and the War itself has left many Southern women in widow’s weeds. Though the War is now over, Captain Cat Harvey, a 19-year-old Texas Ranger, has refused to surrender, and has his own mysterious reasons for continuing to take the fight to the Yankees. Knowing his small band of men is insufficient for the task, he decides that widow’s grief is a powerful casus belli. He and his men thus ride around the burned-out cities and towns of Georgia, organizing widows—both highborn and humble—into a terrifyingly savage fighting force. He promises them that as their husbands’ blood was spilt and their homes burnt at the hands of Sherman, they will march to Ohio, where they will kill the demon general and burn down his home. And thus Colonel Cat (the women’s admiration promotes him) and his widows ride North, destroying Yankee garrisons and adding widows to their number as they march through Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
This Side of the River begins as a riveting story, and Stayton’s prose is strong, violent, and fiercely masculine. Much of the power of the novel comes from his decision to tell the story from different perspectives, unfolding the narrative through the eyes of Col. Cat, his lieutenants, the widows, camp slaves, and many individuals outside of Cat’s ever-increasing company. Stayton’s ability to capture these voices, down to a near-perfect ability to write in dialects, is incredible. Seeing the violence of the novel presented through the perfectly-lady-like voice of Metta Dahlgreen, listening to the ruminations on loyalty, friendship, and freedom by the slave Salome, and being privy to the righteous rage of Jincy McBrdie and the mysterious prophesies of Darkish Llewellyn are gut-punchingly powerful and moving. Yet in places, Stayton seems to try too hard to capture the feel of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. A kidnapped Unitarian newspaperman becomes like Faulkner’s Addie Bundren, the novel’s moral and intellectual arbiter, forced into silence. This character is tragically underused, as he could have provided real and needed intellectual and moral depth to the novel. An obscure one-sentence chapter—“His huckleberry is beyond my persimmon”—seems like little more than a reference to Faulkner’s young Vardamon saying “My mother is a fish.” On the whole, while the novel begins strong, it seems to lose itself in places. Fortunately, it always recovers, confronting readers once again with a stark, powerful, and bloody narrative.
Stayton does an admirable job of creating a blood-spattered revenge novel, a sort of Civil War Inglourious Basterds. Nevertheless, this engrossing, exciting adventure suffers from a lack of focus in developing and explaining plot points, especially those that would help to develop the character of Cat Harvey. Cat’s reasons for continuing to fight are never made fully clear, as his suffering at Shiloh is always mysterious, and his occasional possessions by a ghost named Handsome—who in the most confusing portion of the novel seems to be spending the afterlife in a parallel-universe-Nazi concentration camp, complete with numerical tattoos, in which former slaves are the jailers of their former masters—never developed to any real satisfaction. Insufficiently explained, Cat exists like a pastiche of Blood Meridian’s Judge and The Dark Knight’s Joker—an inexplicably haunted, violent nihilist. This is not a bad thing, necessarily, inasmuch as Cat is a truly fascinating and frightening figure, and he exemplifies the hero/devil mythic duality ascribed to his ersatz antagonist, W.T. Sherman. Yet the overtures Stayton makes at explaining Cat are under-wrought, and serve simply to confuse readers. It would have been better to let him simply be a truly terrifying man-spectre who wears a dress and clown makeup while riding an elephant, as he does for a significant portion of the novel. By making Cat both this ambiguous, frightening figure and attempting to explain and humanize him, Stayton’s most important character becomes his least satisfying.
The novel’s use of sex is equally inconsistent. The book’s sexual violence is appropriately shocking and powerful. An early rape scene blindsides readers, and forces them to recognize that Stayton’s seemingly heroic, romantic novel will be something far, far darker. Pregnant widows attempting to make sense of the lives growing inside them, and their connection with both their rapist and the destroyed world in which they live, present truly moving scenes. Yet lesbian subplots, a surprisingly tender exploration of youthful love and lust, and a frankly bizarre sadomasochism scene—that chapter is narrated by “Madame Lashville,” her name a weak pun—serve simply to confuse Stayton’s purposes, as these and other moments sometimes feel little more than pornographic.
I referenced Inglourious Basterds a moment ago, and it often feels as if what Stayton wants to do with This Side of the River is to create a Tarantino film of a novel. It is a work that does not know whether it wants to be deadly serious or a hilariously black comedy, heroic or anti-heroic, titillating or terrifying. But this is not to say that this is a bad novel, any more than Tarantino’s films are bad. Ultimately, This Side of the River is a good-but-flawed novel that asks us to think through the consequences of loss, courage, grief, and madness, and how these intersect to shape both our personal and communal memories and ways of understanding. It’s a novel that brutally asks us to think about power, manipulation, and why we are loyal to some things. Stayton’s choice to write in the multi-perspective, episodic form allows him to show his considerable skills as an author of characters and creator of voices, but it also fundamentally limits how good the novel can be. While there is real talent on display here, the flaws of the novel prevent This Side of the River from being a great work. Nevertheless, it is ultimately an engrossing and intelligent adventure that moves quickly. Readers who dedicate an afternoon to the book’s rapid-fire brutality will be rewarded and challenged by its unique reimagining of our most mythic shared American experience. And whatever its shortcomings, This Side of the River is highly entertaining, and we should excitedly anticipate further efforts from Mr. Stayton.