A wounded Civil War veteran reckons with thieves, racism and the torments of his past.
Weller’s debut novel alternates between 1864 and 1899 to follow the life of Abel Truman, who fought for the Confederacy before moving to the Pacific Northwest. Much of the action in the Civil War chapters focuses on the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, a particularly bloody affair, and Weller relates the action in disarmingly visceral detail, blasted faces, spilled bowels and all. That violence is paralleled by Abel’s own unhappy past, in which his infant daughter and wife died in quick succession. In the 1899 chapters, Abel is living an isolated life with his dog before he falls afoul of a pair of thieves working their way down the Pacific Coast. The alternating chapters essentially make for two redemption stories—the first a chronicle of Abel’s awareness of the folly of racism and the futility of war, the second a tale of human capacity for not just survival, but heroism. Weller relates all this in flagrantly Faulkner-ian language, thick with nature imagery and long sentences that strive to swallow the world whole: “The sun was bright in the leafed trees, upon grass slick with caught rain, and the man-filled road was as protean and indomitable as a river flowing seaward.” Weller’s command of this style is sometimes shaky, at times obscuring plot points or overdramatizing particular moments. And the linguistic finery serves a fairly simplistic fable on kindness and brotherhood. (Abel Truman’s very name hints at how morally uncomplicated the protagonist is.) But Weller’s finer moments are marked by some spectacular sentences: He finds an unlikely beauty in the violence-torn settings, as when a bullet passes a soldier’s neck “like the first quick kiss of a shy girl.”
A familiar war story, but told with verve and sturdy, biblical intonations.