We begin in the dust of the valleys, in the long days and the sounds of your generations, digging and constructing and fighting, the hollow slapping of their fists against the meat of the men they beat into the dust. The stray dogs that lapped their spilled blood, while flies hummed and flickered along their mangy skins, their bulged ribs.
This book is about an aesthetic. A scent. Sounds. Blood and embalming fluid and the yellow depths of alligator eyes. Verbs are generally bombastic words with accompanying sounds.The child-hero’s father puts his gasoline soaked hand over the boy’s mouth to keep him quiet and the smothering scent and sensation I can feel still.
It’s biblical in language and scope, Abraham Lincoln as father, God as father, and most importantly — your father as Father (it is written in the second person). The War is apocalyptic. There are plagues. Of gulls and alligators and militiamen. Endless imagery of furs and skins, mud and leather. Mountains of corpses. The prose is unique and dizzying and if it reminds me of anyone, it would be William Vollman.
When it’s not portraying an aesthetic (or sometimes when it is), it is allegory. The freed slaves are only ever called ‘the unpaid’; the whites are ‘the paid’, with the poor whites being ‘the lowly paid’. Eponymous Abe is alternately hated as an unpaid sympathizer, described as an unpaid himself*, then as time passes stories are told of how he was a great hater of the unpaid — ‘The Great Emaciator’. This demonstrates changing public opinions of major historical figures and events over relatively brief periods of time. If the reader finds themselves feeling dismayed and superior about the masses at this point, Kloss cleverly levels his ardor at the reader themself — by mixing real historical fact with insidious nonsense, the chaotic result makes it impossible to tell fact from fiction for anyone but a scholar of American history. Which I am not. Was Lincoln’s guard missing when he was assassinated? Was there really suspicion of Mary Todd being involved in the plot?
Like all books where the protagonists are all terrible people, the book can get a little dicey and uncomfortable when it comes to race and gender. Perhaps more so when the oedipal tyrant hero is ‘you’. Kloss seemed aware of what he was doing, but that is definitely up to personal interpretation. Oh, it’s also ultra violent if that it’s a deterrent.
*This book was published in 2012 and the Obama tie in is so blatant it’s almost distracting.