Recommended by William Wright
Casey Clabough’s first novel, Confederado, is the story of Alvis Benjamin Stevens, a confederate soldier of central Virginia who returns home four months after the official conclusion of the American Civil War to find the context of his landscape, family and town, as well as the stability of his memories, irrevocably altered by what the war has wrought upon them. After igniting enmity among a group of union soldiers within town and escaping narrowly via deft horsemanship and the advice of a woodsmen and a wealthy uncle, Alvis comes to understand he will have to leave his wrecked home for Brazil, where Lavinia, the intelligent and beautiful girl he courted before the war, has fled before him.
After accepting the need to abandon a home he can no longer recognize as his own, Alvis travels through raucous weathers and is literally wrecked and deposited upon the sands of Brazil, finding there a world completely alien to him, where, after living with several idiosyncratic locals and engaging in battles equal to and perhaps more harrowing than those he survived in his homeland, he persists, adapts and, ultimately, prevails. In Clabough’s hands, the story proves kinetic, exciting, and perhaps most importantly, textured with a giftedness that makes Confederado more than an adventure tale: It is genuine literature, allowing its reader to live with and within its protagonist. Relying equally on the complex interiorities of Alvis and the exteriorities of diverse landscapes in which the story takes place, Confederado bears resemblance to the best historical fiction of writers such as Robert Morgan and Ron Rash.
This success is due to Clabough’s muscular handling of narrative: the book’s tone is stately, measured, imbued with fecund language and well-executed and historically accurate dialog. The momentum of the story vacillates between pace and gallop (indeed, Clabough’s love of horses, landscape, and farming are made nearly palpable in this novel), but the swiftness of the story’s movement is not episodic; instead, it is cumulative, authentic, creating a work both vast and intimate. Even in the relatively contemplative, languorous moments in the novel, Clabough’s language is more than merely metaphorically taut, but brisk, sonically textured, often achieving the concentrated dynamism of poetry. In the following passage, for example, Alvis’s re-imagines his home’s landscape despite its war-ravaged wildness:
Alvis . . . took long a long circuitous walk about the farm as mottled clouds drifted eastward overhead, filtering in the sunlight of late afternoon. He paused in the midst of his return beneath a great sycamore on a hillside overlooking the surrounding terrain. The whiteness of the house shone in the bottom against the green fields and weathered gray chestnut boards of the outbuildings. The fields had been neglected during the war and stood covered in weeds, sumac, and saplings, but Alvis, recalling all his father had taught him, could imagine how they would appear when he worked them again: how the furrows would open with a dark purple hue in the creek bottom while irregular shades of hard red clay would line the hillsides.
Alvis’s love of trees transcends their utility, the narrator tells us; his admiration includes, also, “the manner by which they spoke of the seasons through the shifting colors of leaves and the rushing and receding of sap.”
Indeed, all of Confederado is about revising one’s life, changing one’s inner and outer landscape to survive inevitable obstacles, even death. It is about indentifying home and acknowledging its changeability, how to adapt to and reshape it, while never losing sight of one’s central goal. Thus, despite its tragic landscapes and characters, Confederado is a heroic tale, one worth reading more than once for its muscular, authentic, and exciting textures.