Monday, December 24, 2007

Affliction by Russell Banks

This is the second novel I’ve read by Russell Banks—the first being Cloudsplitter—and I enjoyed this one just as I enjoyed the one previous. I did not know until after I had finished the book and looked for some of its reviews on the Internet that Banks had been beaten by an abusive father, but I was pretty sure of it anyway, just based on the reality of his fiction and the honest knowledge of his prose. A darkly powerful scene in the book comes as a flashback of just such a violent scene.

Pop held Wade with one hand by the front of his shirt, like Matt Dillon drawing a puny terrified punk up to his broad chest, and he took his left fist, swung it out to the side, opened it and brought it swiftly back, slapping the boy’s face hard, as if with a board, then brought it back the other way, slapping him again and again, harder each time, although each time the boy felt it less, felt only the lava-like flow of heat that each blow left behind, until he thought he would explode from the heat, would blow up like a bomb, from the face outward.

At last the man stopped slapping him. He tossed the boy aside, onto the couch, like a bag of rags, and said, “You’re just a little prick, remember that.”

Wade looked up and saw that Pop was still smoking his cigarette. Ma had her hands on the man’s shoulders and was steering him away from the couch, back toward the bedroom door, saying to him, “Just go on back to bed now, go on, go back to bed,” she said. “You’ve done enough damage for one night. It’s over. It’s over.”

“When I say do something, goddammit, I mean it,” Pop said over his shoulder. His voice was high and thin, almost a whine. “I really mean it. When I say do something, I mean it.”

“I know you do,” she said. “I know.”

Then the man was gone into the darkness of the bedroom, and the door was closed on him, and Ma was able to attend to her son’s bleeding mouth and nose, his swelling cheeks. She reached toward him, to soothe and cool the heated flesh of his face, but he shoved her hands away, wildly, as if they were serpents, and backed wide-eyed from her to the stairs behind him, where he turned and saw his older brothers waiting for him, huddled in gloom on the stairs like gargoyles.

He moved slowly past the two, and a few minutes later, when he had undressed and climbed into his bed, they came along behind him. For a long time, our mother sat on the couch, listening to herself break apart inside, while everyone else in the house, even Wade, let pain be absorbed by sleep—cool gray, hard and dry as pumice stone, sleep.

But Banks knows more than just what it means for a child to be beaten. As glimpsed at the end of the above selection, he knows what it means for a woman to be unable to protect her children from her abusive husband, and, most importantly for the novel, he knows what it means for a child who is beaten to grow up and struggle with the pressures and disappointments of adulthood.

Wade was locked into an old familiar sequence: his thoughts and feelings were accelerating at a pace that threw him into a kind of overdrive, a steady high-speed flow that he could not control and that he knew often led to disastrous consequences. But he did not care. Not caring was only additional evidence that he was in this particular sequence again. But there was not a damned thing he could do about it, and not a damned thing he wanted to do about it, either, which was yet a third way that he knew he was in this particular gear again.

The novel is filled with little glimpses like this, glimpses of what the world looks like to a man who had been violently disconnected from his emotions and his own vision of himself as a man, which is ultimately what Glenn Whitehouse did to his son. And in disconnecting Wade from his emotions, Glenn also disconnected Wade from everyone around him.

Other people were in one world; he was in a second. And the distance between their worlds caused other people concern and perplexity and made them curious about him—for here he was alone in his world; and there they were gathered together in theirs.

Affliction is a novel about this kind of loneliness, a loneliness Banks must have wrestled a great deal with himself.

So it was not really a question of what had happened to her; it was a question of what had happened to him. How had he come to this? How was it that he, Wade Whitehouse of Lawford, New Hampshire, a man who had once been as intelligent and complexly aware as she and possibly even gifted, was standing like this on the stoop of his ex-wife’s house, hat in hand, come begging for a visit with his child, a man wearing cheap mismatched clothes and driving a borrowed battered old stake-body truck, a man without a proper home to call his own, without a job, without any respect in the community, without a wife and with no one to care for but a drunken father who hated him and whom he hated—how had this sorry man come to be the adult version of the bright boy he had seen twenty-five tears ago in Lillian Pittman’s eyes?

Lillian’s voice through the glass was muffled somewhat, but Wade heard her words well enough: “Wait there. She’ll be right out.” Then she closed the inner door, and Wade was looking at his reflection. It was Pop he saw looking back, twenty or thirty years ago, haunted and angry, kept outside the family of man, compelled to stand in the rain and cold and darkness alone, while the others sat around a fire inside; and because he was not there with them, they were unafraid and slung their arms over each other’s shoulders and sang songs or whispered sweet secrets to one another, men and women and children full of good intentions and competence, people who were able to love one another cleanly. He, like his father before him, and like that man’s father too, Wade’s and my grandfather and our unknown great-grandfather as well, stood outside, hands buried in pockets, scowling furiously at the frozen ground, while everyone else stayed warm and loved one another.

All those solitary dumb angry men, Wade and Pop and his father and grandfather, had once been boys with intelligent eyes and brightly innocent mouths, unafraid and loving creatures eager to please and be pleased. What had turned them so quickly into the embittered brutes they had become? Were they all beaten by their fathers; was it really that simple?

It may be simplistic to assume that Banks is using his fiction to gain a better understanding of it for himself, a better understanding of what it is and where it all comes from, but reading a passage like that makes it difficult for me to believe that he isn’t doing exactly that. And as can happen when an artist pours that kind of soul-wrenching into his art, it helps elevate the novel beyond just a story about a man named Wade and the inner demons he is fighting.

There are several more darkly powerful scenes in Affliction. Here’s another, which occurs after Wade goes to visit his parents and discovers his father more asleep than awake in the living room of their freezing home. The furnace is broken, and Glenn hasn’t gotten around to getting it fixed.

Wade could see Ma in the bed, on the far side, where she always slept, covered with a heap of blankets. He walked to the foot of the bed and looked down at her. She lay on her side, facing away from him, and all he could make out was the outline of her body, but he knew that she was dead. He thought the words, Ma’s dead—when suddenly he heard a click and a loud whir from the floor beside him, and he leapt away, as if startled by a growling watchdog. It was the fan of a small electric heater coming on, and the spring coils began to glow like evil red grins behind the fan, and a hot wind blew at his ankles.

Stepping carefully away from the thing, he crossed to the head of the bed, where he could see the woman clearly. Beneath a mound of blankets and afghans, she wore her wool coat over her flannel nightgown and lay curled on her side like a child, with her tiny hands in mittens fisted near her throat, as if in enraged prayer. Her eyes were closed, and her mouth was open slightly. Her skin was chalk white and dry-looking, almost powdery, as if her face would crumble to the touch. Her body resembled a feather-light husk more than an actual human body, and it seemed incapable of holding up the weight of the blankets that covered her to the shoulders and wrists. “Oh, Lord,” Wade whispered. “Oh, Lord.” He came forward and sat down on the floor, cross-legged, like a small boy, facing her.

Margie stood at the door, watching in silence, instantly comprehending. The room was icebox cold, and she could see her own breath, and she knew that the old woman had frozen to death in bed. She closed the door and walked slowly back to the kitchen, where Pop stood staring down at the stove.

What’s most interesting about this scene, at least to me, is the fact that we all know that the reason Sally Whitehouse is dead is because of Glenn’s drinking, as sure as if he had beaten her to death with his own fists. She was a woman who had chosen to stay with her abusive husband, had stayed with him and watched him beat and drive their children away, had withstood beatings herself, and had fatefully met her end in the same way that she had thus lived, alone and in fear. We all know this even though neither Banks nor any of his characters ever directly say it. It doesn’t need to be said. The truth of it is there so plainly on the page, in the description of Sally Whitehouse’s body, in Glenn’s and Wade’s and Margie Fogg’s reactions to the fact of her death, that to have one of them say it would be to push the fiction beyond the bounds of the cruel realism Banks has so deftly crafted.

And then there’s this scene at Sally’s funeral.

We all looked at Pop, who stood blinking in the sunlight, his flower held in front of him as if he were about to smell it. It was a strange moment. We were suddenly and unexpectedly aware of our mother’s presence in a way that until this moment we had either denied or had been denied. Her sad battered life seemed to come clear to us, and for a few seconds we were unable to look away from her suffering. We had looked away, averted our gaze, for so many reasons, but mostly because we all three believed at bottom that we could have and should have saved her from our father’s terrible violence, the permanent wrath that he seemed unable to breathe without. But somehow, the sight of that shrunken old man holding the flower before him in trembling hands, unsure of what to do with it, made us briefly forgive ourselves, perhaps, and allowed us to see him as she must have seen him, which is to say, allowed us to love him, and to know that she loved him and that there was no way we could have saved her from him, not Lena, surely, and not I, and not Wade. And not even the old man himself could have saved her from the violence that he had inflicted on her and on us. If he had taken himself out behind the barn one morning during his life with her and shot himself in the head, inflicted on himself in one awful blow all the violence he had battered us with during the years we lived with him, it still would not have released us, for our mother loved him, and so did we, and that awful blow would have been inflicted on us as well. His violence and wrath were our violence and wrath: there had been no way out of it.

The mixture of love and fear that Glenn’s wife and children felt for him is the saddest part of this book, and never more truthfully described than in this one paragraph. What must it be like to have the person you love the most also be the person you fear the most? Fortunately, not all of us know, but Russell Banks does, and through this powerful novel, he gives us all a glimpse of life within that reality.

One more item I can’t resist including here.

Lena and her husband, Clyde, had made Christ their personal savior, apparently the result of a visit from Him—a type of house call was the way they explained it—one night of despair four or five years earlier, and while the chaos of their life had not changed one iota, it had gained significant meaning, since they and their five children were now devoted to the life of the spirit and the next world instead of to the body and this one. Their disheveled and deprived daily lives were now regarded as evidence not of incompetence, as in the past, but of their new priorities. I did not pretend to understand the nature of the conversion experience, of being “saved,” one way or the other, or the teachings of the Bible Believers’ Evangelistical Association, to which they belonged, but it was clear to me that whereas before they had been depressed and frightened, for what seemed very good reasons, such as poverty, ignorance, powerlessness, etc., they were now optimistic and unafraid. Of course, according to the pamphlets Lena mailed to me from time to time, what they were looking forward to was the imminent end of the world, to earthquake and famine, to seas turned to blood, to plagues of sores, to legions of demons and the writhing demise of the antichrist, events that those of us who were not scheduled for rescue by the Rapture might find even more depressing and frightening than poverty, ignorance and powerlessness.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans

I didn’t enjoy this one so much, although there were a few tidbits that I think I can use again.

The first is a simple strategy for hiring for both technical skill and “fit.” It requires a clear delineation of the values necessary to success in the organization and position, such as honesty, integrity, teamwork, customer focus and work/life balance. In the phone interview, quiz them on the technical skills. Make sure they are as good on the phone as they look on paper. But in the in-person interview forget technical skills and focus entirely on the fit, asking open-ended, situation-based questions to see if they demonstrate the same values. I’m going to do that the next time I have to hire someone.

The second is a fun little reward mechanism called “Be the Best.” Once a quarter ask each team member to submit one other person’s accomplishment that impressed them. Read these submissions over and award a winner, giving them an extra day off or something similar. It gives you a chance to see accomplishments you’ll probably never otherwise see, and it gives everyone a chance to recognize their teammates.

The third is an interesting way to think about work/life balance, which is attributed to someone named Brian Dyson from Coca-Cola. Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them—work, family, health, friends, and spirit—you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls—family, health, friends, and spirit—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. It will never be the same. You must understand that.

And the fourth is the following description of people in Generation X:

While the X-ers do not offer “blind” loyalty to a company, they can be fiercely loyal to a project, a team, a boss they like, the mission of the organization, and, yes, even the organization itself. But that loyalty is based on the notion of mutuality. As long as they are challenged, growing, and enjoying the work—and as long as you are getting what you want and need from them—they’ll stay. When that partnership weakens or the scales tip to one side, they’ll be outta there!

They also want balance between work and their personal lives. They have boundaries, and they use those boundaries effectively. That doesn’t mean they won’t put in the occasional all-nighter when it’s needed. But don’t expect they’ll do that for the next 20 years. Many feel that one of the greatest gifts of this generation to the rest of us is introducing the expectation of work/life balance. They don’t live to work. They work to live.

You know, I’ve always eyed this generation stuff a little skeptically, but I don’t think truer words have ever been spoken about me. The first paragraph describes exactly what happened to me the last two times I changed jobs. And I can’t read the second paragraph without thinking about a former boss and the way she killed the work/life balance item from the list of ideal staff qualities we were developing.

So those four things were good. The rest of the book was either junk or stuff so common sensical that it seemed strange to think of people who would have to read them in a book to understand them.

And I hate it when books like this force its points into some arbitrary convention. Here there are twenty-six strategies, one beginning with each letter of the alphabet. As if that obeys some kind of universal law of language and management. What if I find another strategy not covered here? Will we need to invent another letter of the alphabet? In fact, how do I know there isn’t a twenty-seventh strategy, and you didn’t include it because there are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet? And are there really twenty six? Some of them seem kind of similar. Maybe you stretched twenty of them out to cover the whole alphabet. Why do they do these things? Does it sell more books?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Cold Harbor by Gordon C. Rhea

This is the fourth in a series by this author, detailing Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864. This one takes us from the two armies' entrenchments north and south of the North Anna River on May 26 to Grant’s uncoordinated attack at Cold Harbor on June 3. I’ve read volumes 2 (Spotsylvania and Yellow Tavern) and 3 (North Anna River), and found them both remarkable in their mutual abilities to: (a) convey a great deal of detailed information about troop movements; (b) capture the perspectives of the individual soldiers fighting the battles; and (c) explain the strategy underlying it all and the thoughts going on in the heads of the commanding generals. Most battle narratives focus on one of these areas. Rhea consistently accomplishes all three in works that are both scholarly and accessible to the average reader.

He’s also good at explaining things that have never been explained before (at least not to me). For example, Grant’s doggedness and determination are often touted during this phase of the war, especially compared to former Union commanders who had faced Robert E. Lee. Grant was determined to keep moving forward and not retreat after each battle (even if it was a Confederate victory) so as to keep the Army of Northern Virginia on its toes and unable to heal itself. I can still hear Shelby Foote’s voice from Ken Burns’ The Civil War, “Move by the left flank, move by the left flank, move by the left flank,” describing the almost simpleminded strategy Grant employed to do just that.

Well, all those moves by the left flank were more than just stubbornness. Grant was counseled and he considered numerous times a movement around the other side of the Confederate Army, but always decided against it because his line of supply was dependent on the rivers flowing into Virginia from the Atlantic coast. With each movement, and new “flying depot” was set up on the next river closer to Richmond, and the ships supplying that depot simply went further down the coast before turning in. Going around the Confederate left (i.e., moving by the right flank) would have put the Army of Northern Virginia between Grant and his base of supplies.

Rhea consistently helps me understand certain perplexities of the war. For example, here’s a written order from General Lee that comes fairly early in the book:

I approve what is therein suggested and have authorized General Early to carry out what is proposed, if his judgment approves. I desire you, if circumstances permit, to carry out your part.

And I can’t help but think, how can anyone manage an army as well as Lee did with so many qualifiers in his orders? If his judgment approves? If circumstances permit? How about just ordering people to do the things you want them to do? Aren’t these just the same kind of equivocations that kept Ewell from taking Cemetery Hill the first day of Gettysburg, assuring the Union forces the high ground and probably the ensuing victory?

But as you read more of Rhea’s text, the chaos and shifting realities of the battlefield become clear, and with it the need for front line commanders to exercise independent judgment and for their behind-the-lines generals to give them the flexibility to do exactly that. Rhea even provides one vivid example of the slaughter that can occur when such qualifications aren’t placed on orders coming from the rear.

After Grant’s assault on June 3, a collection of Union soldiers found themselves pinned down a few dozen yards or so in front of a salient in the Confederate line. Long after the assault had ended they were still there, trading shots with their rebel opponents still within the salient. One attempt to dislodge them by a Confederate company had ended in their slaughter, the Union men, protected behind improvised earthworks, shooting every man that came over the rebel fortifications intending to destroy them. Late in the day, a second such command came up from a rearward commander.

Fully aware that the assignment was futile, he [Captain Charles Seton Fleming of the 2nd Florida] asked for confirmation of the order and learned to his astonishment that he had heard it correctly. “I have been told that the order was all a mistake and was not so intended,” wrote Captain [James F.] Tucker [of the 9th Florida], who witnessed Fleming’s reaction and was inclined to give [Brigadier General Joseph] Finegan the benefit of the doubt. “Probably a verbal order was passed down the line from mouth to mouth,” Tucker surmised, “and some qualifying or optional directions were dropped in its transmission.”

The front line officers expected that kind of discretion, and the smart commanders gave it to them, knowing that more harm could come from blindly following orders that were given without a full understanding of the tactical situation at the front.

Another thing Rhea is always good for is dispelling the persistent myths about the Civil War and its battles. Cold Harbor has several good examples. Union soldiers did not, it appears, write their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pin them on the backs of their coats, so that their dead bodies might be recognized upon the field, and their fate made known to their families at home. That idea has only one source, Captain Charles H. Porter, an aide on Grant’s staff, who evidently wrote a number of sensational inventions in his memoir thirty years after the Civil War.

General Lee, in fact, did have a fair number of reserves to help him plug holes punched in his line by the Federals (what few there were). The impression that he did not again attributed only to a single source, the Confederacy’s postmaster general, John H. Reagan, writing forty years after the events he describes.

And the biggest mythbuster of all is the facts surrounding Grant’s grand assault on June 3, which had been roundly described as absolute slaughter, with even our friend Shelby Foote saying more than 7,000 men were gunned down in 20 minutes. Turns out that’s not true either.

Stories of fields littered with blue-clad corpses convey distorted pictures of what really happened. A few sectors saw tremendous slaughter, but along much of the battle line Union losses were minor, and many Confederates had no idea that an offensive had even been attempted. The popular image of a massive Union onslaught at Cold Harbor belongs more to the dustbin of Civil War mythology than to real history.

Union casualties have been grossly exaggerated and probably did not exceed 3,500. Commentators have suggested numbers ranging from 7,500 to well above 12,000, all supposedly incurred during a few terrible minutes after dawn. (In reality the assault sputtered on for about an hour, not the eight minutes some writers have claimed.)

But it is Rhea’s description of the personal experiences of the soldiers in combat that really make these books worth reading from my perspective. The first one I read was the one about Spotsylvania, and the images he describes of men fighting, dying and disintegrating at the Mule Shoe stay with me to this day. Here’s something similar from Cold Harbor.

Combat swirled around Sergeant George Allen Woodrum, the 26th Virginia Battalion’s illiterate, twenty-year-old color bearer who had fearlessly led his company in the attack on Sigel’s lines at New Market. The night before, Woodrum had found a brass bar shaped like a spear. Polishing it, he had fastened it on the end of his flagstaff and shown it to Captain Morton, who remarked that it looked pretty. “It is not only pretty,” Woodrum responded, “but if anybody tries to get these colors, I’ll run this through him.” Captain Morton thought it unlikely that the enemy would get close enough for Woodrum to use his spear, but the young man was insistent. “We are going to have a graveyard fight tomorrow,” he predicted, “and are mighty apt to get mixed up.”

Woodrum, Colonel Edgar, and the battalion’s adjutant, Brown Craig, stood in the middle of the salient, surrounded by the swirling melee. Spotting the flag, a Union officer and two men elbowed through the mob to Woodrum and demanded that he surrender the banner. “This is the way I surrender, damn you,” Woodrum shouted and ran the spear through the officer’s body. The men accompanying the officer shot Woodrum, who fell tightly gripping the staff. More Yankees rushed for the flag, but the rebels drove them back. According to Captain Morton, Woodrum opened his eyes, “saw that his precious flag was still safe, and with one last superhuman effort pulled himself forward and, reaching over, tore the colors from the staff, threw them behind [the enemy], and fell back a corpse.” Christopher B. Humphreys of the regiment clasped the flag until four Federals wrested it from him and passed it back out of sight. Corporal Terrence Begley of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery was credited with capturing the flag. Killed a few months later at Reams Station, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his feat. Federals bayoneted Edgar in the shoulder, captured him, and killed his adjutant Craig. Resistance was futile, and Edgar’s Virginians began surrendering. One enraged Confederate fired into the 7th New York’s color guard, then threw down his musket and hollered, “I surrender.” The regiment’s color sergeant jammed his flagstaff’s steel point into the rebel’s mouth. “You spoke too late!” he roared. Herding captives into low ground immediately behind the salient, Federals made them bow low and mark time to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”

The other thing Rhea can be relied on for is his cogent summaries of the strategies used by the generals and their reasons for employing them. And when they come after all the exhaustive detail of his battle narrative, it is hard to dispute them, even when they run counter to conventional wisdom. For a case in point:

Grant has been roundly criticized for assailing Lee’s line the morning of June 3. Viewed in the campaign’s larger context, the decision made sense. Recently reinforced by the 18th Corps, the Army of the Potomac was stronger than ever. Grant believed that the Confederates were on their last legs, and everything that had happened since crossing the Pamunkey, from Early’s botched assault at Bethesda Church to Wright’s and Smith’s breakthrough on June 1, supported him in that conclusion. Lee now stood a mere seven miles from Richmond, his back to a river. Delay, Grant determined, would serve no purpose, and further maneuvering would be difficult and uncertain in outcome. A successful assault at this juncture stood to wreck the Confederate army, capture Richmond, and bring the war to a speedy conclusion. What better gift could Grant offer President Lincoln on the eve of the Republican convention? Aggressive by nature and accustomed to taking risks, Grant seized the moment. If the offensive worked, the rewards would be tremendous. If it failed, he would simply treat the reverse as he had his earlier disappointments at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and the North Anna River and try another tack. In short, the consequences of not assaulting, thereby forfeiting the chance for a quick victory and extending the war, seemed worse than those of attacking and failing. “Could we succeed by a general assault in breaking [Lee’s] lines, the annihilation of his army was certain, as he would be driven back into the Chickahominy, whence escape was impossible,” was how a Union engineer put the case for attacking. “The hazard was great but General Grant concluded to take the chance.” In many respects, Grant’s reasoning underlying his decision to attack on June 3 at Cold Harbor parallels the reasons that Lee had to launch his ill-fated assault on July 3 at Gettysburg. Both attacks were gambles, but in both instances, the payoff in the event of success promised to be large.