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Like Son, Not Father

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Jeff Shaara's prequel falls short of father Michael Shaara's 'Killer Angels'



Gods and Generals:
A Novel of the Civil War

By Jeff Shaara
Ballantine Books; 498 pages; $25 cloth

Reviewed by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

THE AMERICAN publishing industry has taken on a decidedly Mary Shelley-ish cast these days, picking through the burial vaults of bestselling authors in the hope of finding some stray character sketch, an unused story line or--when the moon is just right--a complete, unpublished manuscript ("It has legs, Igor, it has legs!").

The literary value of these newly dug-up works is breathtakingly nonexistent, but who cares? Someone in either accounting or advertising (the real and most powerful "Anonymous" of the industry) has said that books by established authors are much easier to hype than books by new unknowns, and there are a lot of established authors out there in the ground, so off the editors and acquisitors go with their flashlights and their shovels, hoping to find enough stray papers scattered around the base of the crypt that, when properly reassembled, can bring new life to the publishing industry and--more importantly--get them that end-of-the-year bonus.

In the last few years, we have had the publication of the so-called "lost chapter" of Huckleberry Finn ("lost" because Twain apparently thought it no good and kept it out of the final manuscript, and he was correct) and the resurrection of Louisa May Alcott's long-ago-and-rightfully-rejected romance novel "A Long Fatal Love Chase."

When the deceased author was not thoughtful enough to leave us with some extra material tucked away in the bottom of that last desk drawer, the publishers have just gone ahead and commissioned a live body to put together what the author might have written if he or she was still among the living. And so Alexandra Ripley, a true ghost writer, was commissioned to write a sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. In due time, the wretched Scarlett was brought into the world, looking a bit like the Bride of Frankenstein but jumping to the top of the charts with a screech nonetheless.

Which brings us to the subject of the Civil War: Figuring, perhaps, that family knows best, Mr. Jeff Shaara has written what he and Ballantine Books call a "prequel" to The Killer Angels, the Pulitzer Prize­winning Gettysburg novel by Shaara's deceased father, Michael. I don't know if any novel needs a "prequel," but if any one does, it is not The Killer Angels.

There is a reason why there is a dearth of good, epic novels about the actual fighting that encompassed the Civil War. For my part, I can only name one: The Killer Angels. Like looking directly into the sun, the battlefields of that war were apparently far too horrible to take in head-on, in their entirety. The great 19th-century poet Walt Whitman, who served in a Union Army hospital during the War, once wrote, "Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not--the real war will never get in the books."

And so our best American Civil War novels have used the fighting only as a backdrop (Gone With the Wind) or else shown it from the point of view of a single soldier (The Red Badge of Courage). Bucking this tide, The Killer Angels pulled it off.

In chronicling the three days of fighting on the hills and fields of Gettysburg, Penn., through the eyes of several different federal and rebel officers--using their insight to highlight certain themes and tragedies of life and war--Michael Shaara gave us as good an idea as any of what the Civil War must have been like. His 1974 masterpiece was a rare event indeed, the almost-perfect marriage of an author's style, philosophy, subject matter and story line--a historical novel that remains immensely popular with both critics, reading public, and historians.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf called it "the best and most realistic novel about war I have ever read," and when I find myself in complete agreement with old Stormin' Norman, I feel that we must be in the presence of greatness. So why mess with a good thing? (This is a rhetorical question. See the section on profits, above.)

IN HIS "prequel," Gods and Generals, Jeff Shaara goes back to the first three years of the war and follows the same officers and the same themes as those in The Killer Angels, showing us how they all eventually converged in concert on the spoke-wheel roads leading into Gettysburg. Having eaten the cake, we must now go back in time and watch the purchase of the materials, the stirring and the mixing, and the placement in the oven. It takes all of the anticipation out of the thing.

Comparing Gods and Generals to The Killer Angels is a bit like putting the planet Pluto next to the sun. Not even much of a solar reflection gets bounced back. On its own, Gods and Generals has flashes of good writing, particularly in its battle descriptions, but too many parts where the canvas has been stretched thin and we can see the author struggling to drag the plot along like a mule team pulling a caisson through the Virginia mud.

In trying to explain, for instance, why a Maine college professor of religion, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, decides to join the Union army, Jeff Shaara writes a prewar scene in the Maine woods, wherein Chamberlain goes hunting but decides to pass up a shot on a deer because he cannot bring himself to kill. That in itself seems a little iffy, since a New England family would depend heavily on the hunting of fresh meat to get through the bitter winters. In any event, walking back home, Chamberlain comes across a second deer conveniently standing by the side of the path. Impulsively he shoots at this one, but the gun jams:

    An icy chill ran down his legs, and he knew it wasn't just the cold; he had never felt like this before. He had never enjoyed shooting anything, but this had been pure instinct, without thought--he had never wanted to kill something so badly in his life, and now it shook him, frightened him.

Why Chamberlain should suddenly take an interest in killing is never explained, but in any event, this, Jeff Shaara wants us to believe, is all the preparation the future war hero needs to start cutting down men in battle only a few months later. It's a clumsy piece of writing, of which Gods and Generals provides at least a regiment.

There is a lot more wrong with this book, including its attempt to join the chorus of writers going back to 1861 who insist that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. I don't have the room to go into all of that here, but there will be time for that later. Jeff Shaara has already announced that he is now working on a sequel to his father's book, calling it now a "trilogy." Adequate words escape me to describe my feeling about this. Perhaps simply stating the acronym of the title of Jeff Shaara's book will suffice.

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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