The effects of a catastrophic civil war on a hopeful young society, one energized and conflicted by innovation and reform, are explored with ferocious imaginative power by newcomer Adrian, a Virginia medical student who seems poised to embark on two demanding and distinguished careers.
A superb prologue details the battlefield experiences and early death (at Chickamauga) of preadolescent Thomas Jefferson (Tomo) Woodhull, (fictional) son of feminist intellectual firebrand (and first woman presidential candidate) Victoria Woodhull. Then, in a gradually expanding narrative filled with delicious surprises, Adrian traces the histories and subsequent interconnections of four brilliantly realized characters, each of whom has desired, or experienced, communion with “spirits.” Tomo’s (also fictional) twin brother George Washington (Gob) subsumes his guilt over not having run off to war with Tomo in a busy medical career, and the Frankensteinian invention of a machine he believes can restore the dead to life. His associate, sorrowful Will Fie, and journalist Maci Trufant, Victoria’s journalistic handmaiden and later Gob’s wife, are reluctant visionaries similarly obsessed with their dead. And poet Walt Whitman, grieving for the “boys” he tends to, ever stoically singing his wounded country’s lamentations, enters Gob’s increasingly deranged world in a manner memorably resolved by the novel’s hallucinatory double climax. Gob’s Grief enchants with its replete portrayal of 19th-century America simultaneously paralyzed and shimmering with purpose and promise, a superabundance of quaint and curious (mainly medical and scientific) lore, and such boldly imagined secondary characters as Pickie Beecher, an oddly prophetic youngster of seemingly unearthly origins, and the sinister Urfeist, Gob’s terrifying “tutor”—who may be a projection of the high-strung inventor’s fragmenting psyche. Adrian ends it all smashingly, as Gob makes the ultimate sacrifice, and, in a way none have foreseen, the lost Tomo is made to live again.
A magnificent debut.