A review by Micah Levi Conkling.
Pickett’s Charge, the second novel from Atlanta-based author Charles McNair, has already garnered the type of cult following that attaches itself to the best of Southern literature. Praise for the book is charged with enthusiastic hype, predominantly in favor of McNair’s encompassing vision and imaginative storytelling. On the back of the book jacket McNair is mentioned alongside folks like Faulkner, O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy.
That is fine company, and the acclaim is well deserved.
Pickett’s Charge is the story of Threadgill Pickett, a native of the Yellowhammer state who, in 1964, is the last living Confederate in the United States. While residing in a nursing home, Threadgill is visited by the ghost of his brother Ben, his twin who died by the barrel of a Union gun in 1864. Ben informs Threadgill that the last living Yankee is living in Bangor, Maine, and commands Threadgill to head north and get revenge by killing the last Billy Yank on earth.
There are most certainly elements of magical realism in Pickett’s Charge, and fans of McNair’s first book, Land O’Goshen (1994), will appreciate the enchanting grotesque McNair sows throughout his tale. There are violent monkeys for sale, hallucinating time-travelers, bouts with a Little Green Man, a case of rabies and a strange incident on a Gulf island involving goats.
The trajectory of the story, however, is about bitterness and vengeance and where they get you: Threadgill’s determination to head north, and Threadgill’s motivation for believing he must kill that last breathing Blue Belly soldier.
When I finished the book I couldn’t help but recall another literary allusion to George Pickett’s military siege that fateful day in July of 1863: William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust quote made famous by Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. That passage, which begins, “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863 … ” is a nod to what many consider the turning point of the Civil War at Gettysburg, an event Foote himself said was “The single greatest mistake of the war by any general on either side.” Faulkner’s quote is commenting on Southern memory and the peculiar mixture of longing and tension felt by Southerners in the mid-20th century. He uses Pickett’s Charge because it was the moment many believed had determined the cause being lost.
McNair’s Pickett’s Charge has been talked about as a novel of and considering the changing South, and for all of the mystical happenings and general oddness the book contains, there is much to be said for the way it comments on the South’s modern situation. Like Faulkner captured the mid-20th century spirit of the Southerner by invoking Pickett’s Charge, McNair does in his most recent novel. Pickett’s Charge is about adapting to change: how and why we do it, and what the implications of acclimating to new beliefs and social values are for the people who are being called upon to change.
Pickett’s Charge is a tall tale – its myths are Don Quixote-esque and characters like those from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book – but the story McNair is telling doesn’t seem far-fetched. Through the character of Threadgill Pickett and within the last living Confederate veteran’s desires and adventures, McNair conveys many truths about the consequences of bitterness and vengeance, the difficulty of change, and the struggle for identity in a rapidly changing South.
Micah Levi Conkling is a graduate student in the English department at West Virginia University. His research and writing interests are Southern studies and Civil War literature. Pickett’s Charge is one of Deep South’s Fall/Winter Reads.