Book info

Cloudsplitter (1999)

Cloudsplitter (1999)
Author
Rating
3.91 of 5 Votes: 5
ISBN
0060930861 (ISBN13: 9780060930868)
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English
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publisher
harper perennial
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Cloudsplitter (1999)
Cloudsplitter (1999)

About book: How this book ranks as a New York Times Book Review "Editors' Choice" is beyond me. At 758 pages, it's about 600 pages too long, making me think Banks must have some sort of auteur cred with his publisher that allows him to demand no editor lay hands on his oeuvre. This is fiction, so I realize it doesn't have to be a biography-level work on abolitionist John Brown, but let's try for something at least marginally more than superficial character depiction. I mean give him some bad habits, a nervous tic, a strange sense of humor--anything to make him human! And I don't just mean John Brown's character--there isn't one person in this book deeper than the ink on the page. Even the narrator, Owen Brown, is so inconsistent and flat, I couldn't buy any of his supposed metamorphosis (his transformation from gimpy middle son to machiavellian militant).Also, could we have a plot with blood, guts, and heart? Or should we spend pages upon pages detailing the goods in the Brown farmhouse or the ins and outs of Brown's indebtedness to fill-in-the-blank farmer? Or quoting the lengthy bible-speak of Brown's sermons? Over and over and over again. Banks spent--no lie--the first 30 pages regaling us with sentence after sentence telling us (via his narrator Owen) he HAS to tell this story, it's time that he tells this story, so he's going to tell us the story--just wait, he's got quite a story to tell, and so on. 30 pages of it.And, the conceit of having John Brown's son narrate as if he's telling a publisher's agent his story makes no sense in that it provides no value whatsoever. In fact, it's even ludicrous that we're supposed to believe a 19th-century farm boy is going to open up to a city woman and tell her, in detail, about his first experience with a prostitute, that he's basically a closet homosexual (something that had nothing to do with this story--although it would have been more interesting), that he basically killed the ex-slave he loved (which it seems, he didn't kill), and that his brother castrated himself (which was an incongruent scene that had nothing to do with the price of tea in China). This book was "tell, don't show" at its finest. Coming off as wispy, trailing sentences I assume Banks means to tantalize, but instead come off like a fainting couch heroine on a soap opera. I paraphrase (because, to quote, would require 30 pages): "Fred, well he, he was just special...as we would all come to find out. But not until it was too late." It turns out I never found out why Fred was so special. He cut off his own balls--does that make him special? I suppose that's one interpretation (he did do it with melodramatic flair: "He hurled his testicles away into the willow thicket with great force, as if violently casting out a demon. On his face he had an expression of wild pride." Apparently, it didn't hurt much because, right after the pride, he "was possessed by a sudden placidity--a great calm.")I learned a lot more about John Brown, the abolitionist movement, and the feeling in the country at the time by reading the YA-level "American Troublemakers" series JOHN BROWN: MILITANT ABOLITIONIST. And, yes, it was by-the-book, junior-high-level nonfiction, but damn! At least it caught some of the fire behind Brown and the events of the time.Banks, I believe, might be the first person to make the horror of our slave years not tragic, but boring.

Finally finished this ginormous tome, after dipping in and out of it for months. I have mixed feelings. Subject matter's fascinating, of course: radical abolitionist and Christian fundamentalist John Brown raises his family to be a cult of anti-slavery soldiers, culminating in the failed attempt at a slave revolt in Harpers Ferry, VA, one of the big "road to the Civil War" events in your American history textbooks. The big unasked/unanswered question the book poses is this: why did it take a religious nutjob kamikaze terrorist to take serious action against slavery? There were other white abolitionists, of course, but they were basically journalists and theoreticians, not men of action. The only white dude in America to hold true moral convictions about the evil of slavery was a mad dervish who murdered innocent people, then led himself and his sons on a Wild Bunch-style suicide mission.Banks tells the tale from the perspective of Brown's son Owen, the only surviving member of the family circa the turn of the 20th century. The book is pretty much split between the story itself and Owen's running commentary on the story, in which he interjects thoughts about race relations in 19th-century America and the complex father-son relationship between Owen and the "Old Man," as he was known. (The three big themes running through the book are race, religion and daddy issues.) This running commentary is consistently interesting and beautifully written, Owen writing as an old hermit whose every waking minute is haunted by the past events he's relating. But the story itself...eeennnhhhh, I dunno. I'm not at all convinced it needed to take up 750 pages, I'll say that much. Episodes involving John Brown's financial woes are so boring it almost seems like a deliberate joke of boringness. When it finally gets to the killing -- first in the "Bleeding Kansas" wars to determine whether Kansas territory would go free or slave, then in Harpers Ferry -- the book gets bogged down in action sequences, which Banks doesn't write particularly well. But the reflections, the meta-story, made me think long and hard about race and family life in the 19th century, and the broader connection to today's religiously motivated terrorism is clear.For Owen's voice, Banks adopts a purposefully stilted prose style meant to imitate both the general windbaggedness of 19th-century verbiage and John Brown's Biblical oratory. This style is often grating, and it's not without anachronistic usage, but it does help to immerse the reader in the world, and after living with the book for a while I found myself weirdly attached to the voice. What it comes down to is there's a lot of good juicy stuff here, but there's also waaaay too much padding. I believe this could have been a damn good, verging-on-great novel if Banks had kept it somewhere in the 300-400 page range.
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Reviews
Erin
I got into an argument not too long ago - the topic being who, in recent reading memory can write the best run-on sentences.Obviously, I am nominating Russell Banks - who I think trumps his Thomas Mann. Simply for the fact that Banks' run-on sentences send you gliding through a dreamy earthy passage as you tear through the life and times of John Brown and suddenly you realize you have ripped through almost 800 pages in under a week of bedtime readings and find yourself missing the ride.Anyway, despite his issues with commas, Banks has written no less than an eyeopening and lush look at John Brown, what made him tick, his fallacies, his strengths, and of course raises the ultimate question : why did that guy keep having all those babies? Like, give a bitch a break.Okay, no. The bigger question being: "martyr of the Republic or Nat Turner?" Interestingly, I read The Confessions of Nat Turner some time back, and I'm glad that I now have these two books to juxtapose. History was definitely kinder to John Brown, but should it have been? Should we condone hacking up your neighbors with broadswords in front of their families because they don't like abolition? No, neighbors should only be hacked with broadswords if they are coming after you with a weapon - or playing trance music too loud all night.Seriously, thud thud is annoying.(The segues are completely intentional. It's pretty much like preparing you to read this book.)I tend to read a lot in bars, and I was really impressed by the number of people - oddly all men - who seemed to know who John Brown was. I myself only know of him because I am lame, and like Ken Burns' The Civil War which really made him out to be some sort of lost hero. I think Banks also follows that trail, pulling out Brown's fear of failure and need to be great and questionably turning it into justice and reason. Brown's son, the narrator, cannot tell the difference, and eventually we cannot either.Also, life was really hard back then and Banks does a darn fine job of making us feel like we are back in it. The long descriptions of all the work to do even made my muscles ache as I was comfortably reclining and eating up this book. I remember one time it made me feel so bad I actually got out of bed and unloaded my dishwasher.My one bone to pick with the book is how abruptly it ended. It just kept getting better and better, particularly as the group moves toward Harpers' Ferry and the events there, but then I started to get troubled by the scarcity of pages, and it was justified. Like a rolling river dammed, 783 pages later the run-on simply stops. Although I knew it was the end, I kind of in denial and thought about asking Amazon for another copy to truly verify that was it. But I'm sure the feeling of unfinished business was intentional, forcing us to speculate what lay in store for the narrator without being certain of the decision that it seemed painfully obvious he was going to make.Still, powerful. Four out of five.
Brian
This is the first book by Russell Banks that I've read, but I've seen two decent movies based on other novels, Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, both are which are set in contemporary Northeastern rural communities, his more common milieu apparently. Cloudsplitter, however, is a historical novel about John Brown and is told through the voice of his third-oldest son, Owen. While it is a fascinating re-creation of America in the 1840s and 50s, it is also an up-close-and personal look at a family, ostensibly dominated by the intelligence and will of the father. I had previously only known the most bare-bones info about John Brown, so this book filled a lot of gaps and back story and in a manner that allowed John Brown to be more than an iconic historical character, and to be seen as a human being with flaws, as well as his many strengths. One of the interesting insights was how slavery appeared to people of conscience and how the South was seen as increasingly taking political control of all branches of the federal gov't, to the point that some thought the North would be the region to secede.On another level, this was also just a heck of a ripping yarn, with many exciting events occurring that were so beautifully written that they remain deeply etched in my mind. My only complaint is that the author put the grammatically incorrect phrase "most importantly" in the "mouth" of his first-person narrator, Owen Brown, which intruded on the verisimilitude of his nineteenth-century voice. The use of "most importantly"is a relatively modern error, probably dating to the appearance of people saying they gave 110 percent and the need to inflate actions, events, and things. "Importantly" is an adverb, and so a thing cannot be importantly, it can only be important (or not). A person, however, can behave importantly. If you haven't guessed, this is a pet peeve of my; hence the pedantry. Reading this book has piqued my curiosity about John Brown, and so I've bought two biographies, one a relatively recent book called John Brown Abolitionist, and the other called John Brown by W.E.B. Du Bois, which I'm particularly interested in because Frederick Douglass also wrote about Brown and was a very close friend of his, as was Harriett Tubman, though to a lesser extent. But since Brown was pretty much the only white man that any of the black abolitionists and ex-slaves (as well as the slaves he helped get to freedom) ever really trusted and loved, I'm looking forward to seeing how he is portrayed by an influential black intellectual who may have had access to some with first- and certainly second-hand exposure to Brown himself.Finally, since I believe that racism is still a major problem in this country, anyone interested in the dynamics of white/black relations would find this book valuable. And to those who think the worst of our racial history is behind us, I would say, "You must be white. Otherwise, you would know better."I highly recommend this book.
Abby
A gorgeously written (and sympathetic) portrait of the controversial abolitionist John Brown, presented from the vantage point of his son Owen. I'm surprised that I haven't heard more about Russell Banks; he's a gifted stylist and storyteller. The novel starts out in a slow and murky way, but it certainly rewards those who keep reading. I think it was a bit longer than it needed to be, but I came to enjoy Owen's narration so much that I didn't mind. There was lots to think about here, regarding our American heritage of racism.
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