Unlike many a novelist, Chris Adrian isn't intimidated by history. Indeed, he treats historical events as raw material, to be reshaped and reconfigured through the processes of the imagination. It's an endeavor that would please Walt Whitman
, one of the central characters in this challenging debut, Gob's Grief
. Nor is the good gray poet the only "real" character--both Abraham Lincoln and radical feminist Victoria Woodhull put in appearances, giving an extra twist of verisimilitude to Adrian's rendering of America circa 1863, where the Civil War rages and the dead proliferate like weeds.
Gob's Grief opens with the story of Tomo, the fictional son of Woodhull. At age 11, he dreams of escaping Homer, Ohio, to join the fighting. Unable to convince his twin brother, Gob, to accompany him, Tomo finally sets out alone and is promptly killed by a bullet through the skull. His twin never recovers from this loss. In thrall to his grief, Gob grows up to become a doctor, dedicating himself to healing the war's wounded. And by night, he toils away at a more unlikely corrective: a time machine that will eradicate death and bring back all the lost soldiers. His sidekick in this project is none other than Whitman, who shares his desire to resurrect those millions of departed souls: "Their marvelous passion would go out from them in waves, transforming time, history, and destiny, unmurdering Lincoln, unfighting the war, unkilling all the six hundred thousand."
Gob's Grief is an ambitious and occasionally convoluted story, which remains true to the stubborn mysticism of thinkers like Whitman and Woodhull. Cutting back and forth between characters and historical moments, Adrian never pretends to retrospective detachment. Indeed, his novel will appeal to fans of John Dos Passos or E.L. Doctorow--writers who borrow from history but repay their debt in the form of fictional insight. --Ellen Williams
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From Publishers Weekly
Blending history and fiction in the tradition of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, this skillfully imagined first novel follows Walt Whitman as the poet unwittingly aids the son of early radical feminist Victoria Woodhull in constructing a machine to bring back the Civil War dead; indeed, to abolish death altogether. While he is mourning a young soldier who dies in his care, Walt is directed by a message from the dead man to befriend Victoria's son, Dr. George Washington Woodhull, better known as Gob, on a stagecoach in 1868. In 1863, Gob's twin brother, Tomo, ran away to war and was killed. Wracked by guilt at having let his brother go off alone, Gob strikes a bargain with "a mad hedge wizard" known as the Urfeist, who agrees to teach Gob to "defeat death." Will Fie, who has also lost a brother, is compelled by restless spirits to join Gob's cause; wild boy Pickie Beecher, the first product of Gob's labors, calls the machine his brother; Gob's love, Maci Trufant, receives scribbled pleas from her own dead brother, who has seized control of her left hand. The story is repeated from each new character's vantage--gentle, disbelieving Walt is the most sympathetically crafted narrator--and though this allows for an admirably meticulous plot, it hampers the pacing and distances the reader from the difficult, unusual characters. Much like Gob's creation, the novel is a collection of fabulous parts in need of a heart to power them, yet impressing as a flight of fancy. (Jan. 16)from which this novel stemmed, was anthologized in Best American Short Stories 1998.
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