“Pickett’s Charge: A Novel”
Author: Charles McNair
Publisher: Livingston Press
Price: $30.00 (Cloth), $18.95 (Trade Paper)
In 1994 McNair’s first novel, “Land O’Goshen,” a dystopian novel set in the future, made a nice little stir. McNair’s career was launched.
Now after a 19-year silence while he worked successfully at public relations in Atlanta, McNair is back with a BIG novel, this time exploring, in an epic that unspools over one hundred years, the ideas of time, history, tradition and revenge.
The controlling premise is deceptively simple. In the summer of 1864 the Pickett twins, Ben and Threadgill, aged 14, walk from their home near Eufaula seeking to join the Confederate army. Outside Atlanta, Ben is caught and gratuitously murdered by a squad of Yankees.
Threadgill survives the battle, but is horribly wounded, especially by a minie ball that passes through his chest back to front. Lying wounded, he is caught in a forest fire which burns his scalp so deeply it never heals and is a suppurating wound forever. “Imagine a sculpted globe of raw, discolored chicken meat. Imagine it dipped in yellow egg yolk, scorched in a skillet, then left in a damp cellar to grow purple-black mold spots.” Beyond disfigured, he cannot be looked upon. Pickett will wear a head covering every moment of his life from then on. He is separated from the rest of humankind.
Pickett, however, is not a frail old man: “Vengeance turned out to be a pure Fountain of Youth. It kept Threadgill tough and vigilant and focused. It kept him fully and manfully alive years after he should have been cold bones under cold stones.”
One hundred years later, in 1964, now 114 years old, in a Mobile nursing home, Threadgill learns there is one living Yankee soldier in Bangor, Maine, and he sets out to find that man and kill him, avenging Ben.
“Pickett’s Charge” is the story of that journey, Mobile north to Maine, and back into the Southern past, which McNair and we readers of Faulkner know “is never dead. It’s not even past.”
At this level the novel is a road trip, a farce, a picaresque in the tradition of “Huckleberry Finn” or “Don Quixote.” Pickett catches a ride in a Cadillac with a nut dreamer named Larry “Lash” LaRue who plans to make his fortune selling the 42 stinking, motion-sick squirrel monkeys in the back seat. The car crashes: the monkeys, some rabid, escape.
Threadgill’s journey takes him through Montgomery on the eve of the marchers’ arrival where the white residents are in a panic, awaiting “the end of the world,” then, later he runs into the Freedom Riders and their burned-out bus.
The Southern racists are determined to prevent change and forget nothing.
McNair’s forte is the creation of chaos, the lunatic scene. These absurd set pieces, although often over the top, are wild, worth the price of the ticket.
After the crash Pickett, again near death, is taken in and nursed by a kindly but Gargantuan lesbian named Johnnie. She drives a cab, Nadine, smokes Dutch Masters cigarillos and stubs them out in her palm.
Much of the novel is in flashbacks: Pickett’s childhood, his hopeless courtship of Eva Sutton, belle daughter of Colonel Sutton, after the war, with the longest sequence being on Goat Island in Mobile Bay where Pickett chooses to live alone, for decades.
McNair here moves Pickett to mythical status.
In his absolute isolation on Goat Island, Pickett becomes Philoctetes, the Greek warrior with the unhealable wound separated from all mankind.( Because his wound was disgusting to smell, Philoctetes was abandoned on the island of Lemnos for 10 years. He was then called to action against Troy and was one of the men in the Trojan horse.)
A hurricane blows away every bit of animal and vegetable life on the island except the tree he clings to.
Then, in a time-lapse version of what should happen over millennia, evolution repeats itself and the island comes back to its previous fertile state, Pickett here representing, perhaps, the human species.
Eventually Threadgill’s quest takes him to Sand Mountain where the racial theme, always present, moves to the center, but in a surprising way. There he happens upon a peaceable kingdom, a kind of Shangri-la where blacks and whites worship , picnic, marry, all in harmony.
Seeing that harmony, Pickett/McNair questions whether revenge is the only answer. Southerners do not have to be slaves to “tradition.”
As Faulkner put it in “Intruder in the Dust”: “For every Southern Boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863.” Pickett has not yet charged. “It hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin….”
Perhaps Pickett and the South do not have to charge again and again, with the same catastrophic results. Perhaps forgiveness is the answer, not vengeance. Look forward, not back. Forget yes! McNair insists there is a choice.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”