Weaving this epic novel somewhat to the lee side of the historical John Brown, Russell Banks has created in Cloudsplitter an immediate landmark in American fiction: lyricism that explores the unspoken complexities of the long history of relationships between whites and blacks, as well as storytelling that reveals the twisted truths of the ambiguous kinship of any father and son.
Although Banks writes that his masterly novel is "solely" a work of fiction, the drama in Cloudsplitter draws a fierce degree of power from the celebrated, puzzling, sometimes despised historical figure whose bloody guerrilla raids, evidently meant to incite a massive rebellion of slaves, may well have insured that the Civil War became inevitable.
The story is recollected 50 years after Brown's famous execution by one of his sons, Owen, a man who calls himself an isolato. Whether in the heat of family life, the confusion of antislavery actions or in his cabin in California, Owen has always felt himself entirely alone, in large part because he feels himself Isaac to Abraham, forever fixed in the shadow of his magnificent father. Consumed by insecurities and guilt, never able to mature past the death of his mother, Owen is the center of Cloudsplitter. His development from shy child to impassioned murderer to suicidal old man is profoundly moving, even as it leaves him always the reflective observer, ever the moralist even as he succumbs to feelings and impulses that disgust him.
Pained at several levels, not least by his sexual attraction to a youngish black man, Owen always wrestles with his own prejudices: "Race consciousness was wrong. Just as wrong as not being able to forget, whenever I found myself in the presence of a woman, that I was a man and not just a fellow being."But if Banks has created a deeply thoughtful narrator, the technique here could not be more powerfully concrete. It is no small thing, for example, to say that he has perhaps written more beautiful passages about the northeastern wilderness than anyone since James Fenimore Cooper. And, by referring to the thought of Emerson while deftly integrating ideas and tales from the Old Testament, he has confronted the immensity and cruelty of the universe with as much courage and depth as Melville.
At the same time, Cloudsplitter convinces as historicism: the harsh complete facts of farmlife in the early 19th century, the savagery of John Brown's so-called war in Kansas, the beauty of fields in the first breath of spring or the night sky at the unspoiled verge of settlement.
An important novel of ideas rather than a biographical drama, Cloudsplitter speaks beautifully to the disappointments of the American democratic ideal, the flawed moral nature of humankind, the thousand deformations of love, and the seductions of murder and death.
Reviewed by Charles Flowers.