- Devil's Dream
Not just the first time: every time. Every time I finish reading Devil's Dream, my first impulse is to start it again. A widening gyre, this story: how many returns? Even the third time, knowing now I would be writing about it, I kept putting it down and looking at the clock, as I do with all my pleasure reading, thinking "I have got to get back to work," the pleasure of reading still so intense it is guilt-inducing.
I had meant it for the fastest of reads. It was November 2016, just after The Election. I'm a department chair. A writer was coming to town. Colleagues were excited to roll out the red carpet, and they asked me to host a small dinner at a nearby restaurant. I had a weekend to prepare to meet the man with something resembling familiarity and intelligence. The man was accomplished, awarded, locally beloved. I didn't want to fail my colleagues' enthusiasm in any way. But it was a dark month, coming up on Thanksgiving. I, like all my colleagues and students, was tired and not just tired: bone tired. I wanted to hibernate, not pile on more work. I went to Amazon—thirteen novels. He's known for his Haitian Revolution Trilogy—but three of them? Not a chance. Then my eye caught the title of one of his more recent novels—Devil's Dream. More Haiti maybe? But a stand-alone … ?
Not exactly. This one, the description said, was a bio-fiction about one of the Confederacy's more notorious figures: Nathan Bedford Forrest. My breath caught: really? After Toussaint, this guy figures to write about that guy?? (Everyone who knows me knows I'm a total sucker for the unexpected. …)
Nathan Bedford Forrest marks the landscape of the city I moved to fourteen years ago. The name is woven into my most quintessential interactions with the place I live, both grotesque and beautiful. You might know about the grotesque: the Nashville statue. Few who've been to or lived in Nashville fail to have a negative opinion about it: it offends from every possible direction. Erected in 1998 on a 3.5-acre plot of private land, the statue—luridly lit at night, surrounded by Confederate flags—looms over I-65. It's a rendition of Lieutenant General Bedford Forrest on his beloved horse King Phillip: oversized, foil-wrapped (no kidding), gilded and totally, over-the-top goofy, to put it as neutrally as possible. Rachel Maddow, never aiming at neutrality, described it in 2015 [End Page 3]
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as a "terrifying thing … terrifying blue marble eyes. And look at the teeth! This thing has a mouth like a circular saw." She's hardly exaggerating, as any close-up of the face will reveal. It strikes most, though, as comically embarrassing—for the sculptor, the guy who erected it, and the city. "Aesthetically and politically incorrect" it's often described, with the Confederate Cavalier General and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard sporting the kind of expression one might make "after sitting on a thumb tack," as a Nashville blogger put it. "Pretty much the world's ugliest statue," an Ohio visitor cut to the chase. Shot up on a regular basis and just as regularly repaired, the monstrosity was designed by the man who with the same garish sensibility tried to reopen the case against James Earl Ray for assassinating the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King. The city regularly maneuvers for a way to remove the statue and is just as regularly defeated. Mayor Megan Barry (progressive and the city's first woman mayor) promised to plant some kind of fast-growing trees or hedges in front of it that would block the view, but, well, it's still looming.
So there's that: the constant controversy, the gilded eyesore. But there is also a summoning of beauty in the name: for me at least, Nathan Bedford Forrest also conjures an association with a spring-break hike a few years ago, when...