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“Pickett’s Charge” tells a Southern quest tale.
In life, disfigurement makes us avert our eyes, reflexively and involuntarily. If we dealt with extreme physical violence or psychic brutality every day, most of us would drown the universe with our tears. In fiction, though, a skilled author like Charles McNair (a Pulitzer Prize nominee) can focus a kaleidoscope of pain that mesmerizes the reader, making us unable to avert any of our senses.
If this is not the saddest story ever told, “Pickett’s Charge” might be the most agonizing. A century after the Civil War, a 114-year-old Confederate veteran escapes an Alabama nursing home on a quixotic quest to murder the last surviving Union veteran. The modern-day story follows his travel through cities and small towns of Alabama, on his way northward to wreak that vengeance.
Like every hero on a quest, protagonist Threadgill Pickett overcomes distractions, endures excruciating hardships, vanquishes foes, and presses onward resolutely—this journey unfolds as “Pickett’s Charge,” which also refers to the climactic moment at Gettysburg, when Confederate Gen. George Pickett led a desperate, doomed attack on Union forces, the “high-water mark of the Confederacy.”
Pickett endures unremitting physical agony, Job-like, in his travel ever northward: scalding heat, swarming insects, rabid animals, decrepitude, madness. He is a living corpse, his body a patchwork carpetbag of half-healed wounds, his scalp a festering caldera of century-old burns from a battlefield forest fire.
At least Don Quixote had a horse and a sidekick; Huck Finn had a raft and a stalwart companion. Threadgill Pickett has no transport, no plan, and no allies, but rather a storm front of catastrophe stalking his every step. How many more lacerations can his soul survive, disconnected from his rightful era and from human community? Pickett has distilled vengeance in his heart, embedded by vows he’s repeated since he saw his twin brother tormented and killed by Yankees as a young teenager, before they even enlisted in the Rebel army.
He embodies the eternal flame of Confederate hatred for the oppressor who won and then dismissively forgot the fight. In the temporal world, Pickett has survived everyone he ever cared about, and he co-exists in a mythical world where the only meaningful events were the death of his family members, the burning of this, the drowning of that.
Fire burns in nearly every incident of this story; mechanical devices spew out sparks and flames, and water struggles to contain the combustion. Demons arise from fires, monsters emerge from muck, Mr. Death himself walks among us, and the darkness hides unimaginable evils.
Yet…it’s a comic novel, snappy-paced, wrinkle-your-nose funny, and hard to put down—peopled with Southern “characters” named Larry “Lash” Larue and Jerry Coe (say it aloud), a deserted island full of almost-sentient goats, a lesbian taxi driver with a heart of gold, and more really bad weather than “King Lear” and “Wuthering Heights” combined. Informed by frontier tall tales, Native American legends, and African magic, the story rears onto its hind legs to confront the monsters, haunted localities, and heart-of-darkness archetypes of our childhood night terrors.
And it all co-exists cheek-by-jowl with the country road diners, community-wide fried chicken dinners, and demented roadside attractions that sell little golden monkeys to tourists—also the mythos of our Southern childhoods.
Parallel to the present-day story, a second narrative arc follows Pickett from the horrors of the Civil War battlefield to his vastly altered hometown, wandering in a post-war landscape, and eventual self-exile to a Gulf Coast island. McNair alternately drives both stories in simple language with quick bright starbursts of lyricism:
• “On any given summer day in the tropical South, temperatures melted candles inside houses, and tiny dragons hatched in bags of rice in kitchen cupboards.”
• “A century ago, General Sherman and 60,000 hard-eyed Irish boys toughened on three years of war approaching Atlanta…. Burning Georgia, to them, was a birthday party with a million candles.”
At its most ambitious, the novel aligns the residual vengeance of the 1860s with the new cruelties of the 1960s, as Pickett encounters Freedom Riders and racist atrocities in the modern civil-rights era. But the story holds out a hopeful paradigm, for the protagonist and for us, in the offbeat utopia of a devastated chicken farm.
Ending a novel so far-reaching is a challenge, but McNair gives Pickett a final reckoning with his demons that measures up to the intensity of the Civil War itself and its bitter residue that abides in our nation today.
“Pickett’s Charge”, 2013, Livingston Press, University of West Alabama.