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CLOUDSPLITTER by Russell Banks


by Russell Banks

Pub Date: March 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-06-016860-9
Publisher: HarperCollins

 An inordinately ambitious portrayal of the life and mission of abolitionist John Brown, from the veteran novelist whose previous fictional forays into American history include The New World (1978) and The Relation of My Imprisonment (not reviewed). Banks's story takes the form of a series of lengthy letters written, 40 years after Brown's execution, by his surviving son Owen in response to the request of a professor (himself a descendant of William Lloyd Garrison) who is planning a biography of the antislavery martyr. Owen's elaborate tale, frequently interrupted by digressive analyses of his own conflicted feelings about his family's enlistment in their father's cause, traces a pattern of family losses and business failings that seemed only to heighten ``the Old Man's'' fervent belief that he had been chosen by God to lead the slaves to freedom. As we observe the increasingly wrathful actions of Brown, his sons, and his followers, Banks patiently reveals and explores the motivations that will lead to their involvement with the Underground Railroad, the bloody slaughter (by Brown's self-proclaimed ``Army of the North'') of ``pro-slave settlers'' in Kansas, and finally the fateful attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. In many ways, this is very impressive fiction--obviously a painstakingly researched one, with a genuine understanding of both the particulars and the attitudes of its period. The slowly building indirect characterization of ``Father Abraham, making his terrible, final sacrifice to his God'' has some power. But Owen's redundant agonies of conscience (especially regarding his sexual naivetÇ) grow tiresome, and the novel is enormously overlong (e.g., Banks gives us the full nine-page text of a sermon Brown preaches, comparing himself to Job). Cloudsplitter will undoubtedly be much admired. But it penetrates less convincingly into the enigma of John Brown than did a novel half its length, Leonard Ehrlich's God's Angry Man, published 60 years ago. Once again, sadly, Banks's reach has exceeded his grasp. ($125,000 ad/promo; author tour)