- This Side of the River by Jeffrey Stayton
Jeffrey Stayton’s historical novel, This Side of the River, reimagines the end of the Civil War in a series of monologues. The novel’s premise is that at the end of the war young widows in Georgia are furious at General William T. Sherman and ride northward on a quest to burn his house down. Their leader is Catullus Harvey, who is suffering from PTSD, or “soldier’s heart,” as it was known at that time, and one of the central concerns of the book is the interaction between Harvey and the widows he leads. As the quest proceeds, Harvey’s behavior grows increasingly bizarre, including dressing up as a widow himself and requisitioning an elephant from a circus to ride, and the widows struggle to understand the violence of their moment and the identities of women and men in a starkly changed world.
The novel is distinctly postmodern, and in its monologue form specifically references Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. There are of course other models for such structuring, but any doubt that Faulkner is Stayton’s gets wiped away in the one-sentence/one-line “Uncle Calsas” section: “His Huckleberry is beyond my persimmon” (111). Stayton is rewriting Faulkner’s novel a way similar to Robert Antoni’s rewriting of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in Carnival. This one-sentence section also manifests other funds out of which Stayton borrows, including not just Mark Twain’s famous character but also the film Tombstone, for Uncle Calsas is referring to none other than Doc Holiday (as presented in that film, using the phrase “I’m your Huckleberry”) about whom Stayton provides an origin story. This is simply one example of many that draw from a plethora of film and historical lore.
The book is a quick read, with its monologues rarely exceeding a few pages. Some readers may find themselves at cross-purposes, trying to figure out whether to take the book as an exploration of historical possibilities or a postmodern game—the line between the two constantly changes, which will probably lead most readers to assume the latter. That moving line signals Stayton’s artistry, and however engrossing its swift-paced plot may be it is above all a distinctly literary effort by a very smart and talented writer who means to contribute a very unique kind of writing. Stayton will write and publish more novels, and this one marks a striking debut. [End Page 153]
TAYLOR HAGOOD is Associate Professor of American literature at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Faulkner’s Imperialism: Space, Place, and the Materiality of Myth (2008); Secrecy, Magic, and the One-Act Plays of Harlem Renaissance Women Writers (2010); and Faulkner, Writer of Disability (2014). In addition to literary criticism, he has published short fiction and reviews of poetry in such journals as China Grove, Cold Mountain Review, SNReview, and The Rumpus.