A well-realized vision of war’s hell, ghosts and all.
Cass Wakefield sees dead people. So do lots of folks in Lost Camp, Miss., whose sons went off to fight in the war for Texas independence and returned in body bags, a later generation following them to places such as Shiloh and Gettysburg. Cass, the protagonist of Bahr’s (The Year of Jubilo, 2000) third Civil War tale, has survived the war only to find himself decidedly down on his luck two decades later, spending his days as a handgun salesman and his free time shooting rats in alleyways after the dubious glories of combat and the even more questionable virtues of being a “night rider,” a proto-Klansman. Now 55, with “all but four of his teeth,” he is called to duty again when a woman he once courted—almost—prevails upon him to travel to Franklin, Tenn., and “find her long-dead kinfolk and bring them home.” With his comrade-in-arms and constant companion Lucian, Cass guides her to the killing ground, occasioning a series of hallucinatory journeys back into his own unhappy experiences in battle. If his phantasmic visitations are reminiscent of The Sixth Sense, Bahr’s depictions of combat are worthy of Stephen Crane, as doomed rebels march toward distant metal-spitting treelines, “each man telling himself that surely he would see tomorrow,” and return “crying out in pain, in grief, lying in heaps and piles or wandering aimlessly through the yard like ghosts.” Though Alison Sansing’s kin have lain a-moldering in the grave for all those years, the battle and the war are not yet over; Bahr’s tale ends on a surprisingly violent note that points to why, a century and a half later, the Civil War is still held as a subject of living memory in many parts of the South.
Carefully written and nuanced, akin to Frederick Busch’s Night Inspector as much as to Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels.