The Road to Ruin

In E.L. Doctorow's meditation on war, an ambiguous General Sherman leads a march to the sea that becomes almost a force of nature.

September 25, 2005|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Review: Novel


E.L. Doctorow

Random House / 369 pages

THE MOST COMPELLING CHARACTER that E.L. Doctorow creates in his Civil War novel, The March, is the march itself.

We remember William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea from our high school history books as a morality play - but Doctorow is far too subtle a writer and thinker for that, of course. He gives us Sherman's march more as a force of nature that leaves nothing it touches unchanged and no one unmoved.

It's not the fog of war that counts here. It's the dust, which can be just as blinding. It's the sky turned red fromthe pounding feet of 60,000 Union soldiers kicking up good Georgia clay - and from those same soldiers putting a match to towns and plantations unlucky enough to be in their path.

Doctorow is known for his dizzily paced narratives that recast the historical record- most famously in Ragtime. This time, we get the history, but Doctorow walks us through it, even when the prose is moving in double time.

The troops march because Uncle Billy, as the soldiers call Sherman, asks them to march. They set the land ablaze because they can - and because it is Sherman's job to bend the South to his will, and because, at long last, someone has to pay the awful price for this awfulwar.

Characters come and go-it iswar, after all, and in war there is more death than glory- but the march brings a world "remade, everything become something else."

The march offers protection. It offers a home. It offers a direction. And thousands march with the army, including thousands of newly freed slaves who follow because they knownowhere else to go.

Nothing can stop Sherman's army. The South is finally spent, and the folly of the war is clear. Soon it will be over, although the war will be re-fought, at least in the South, for another hundred years after Lee's surrender. The blue-red divide of our time is a trifle placed against the blue-gray divide that led a country to disaster.

It's the echo of the divide that may have attracted Doctorow to examine the Civil War. Certainly, in Sherman, he gets a character with all the incongruity a novelist could want. In a noble cause, Sherman is conducting what has come to be known as total war - he fights and he burns and he marches and, finally, he awaits history's judgment. Sherman once wrote that "If the people raise a howl againstmy barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularityseeking."

The fictional characters don't all work as well. This is not Ragtime, which you read without daring to draw a breath. In The March, Doctorow works with a large cast, but there are times it seems as if he has plugged in characters solely to move the march, and the plot, forward. Insert a conflicted doctor here, a wildcatting general there. Even Coalhouse Walker Sr. makes an appearance, as a nod to Ragtime's Coalhouse Walker Jr.

Doctorow does better with the book's grand themes. The March opens at a Georgia plantation as Sherman's army approaches, and Doctorow provides the poetry to match the moment.

"The symphonious clamor was everywhere," he writes, "filling the sky like the cloud of red dust that arrowed past them to the south and left the sky dim; it was the great processional of the Union armies, but of no more substance than an army of ghosts."

And some of the characters arememorable. Pearl joins the march as a teenager who follows an officer. She's the daughter of a slave and the plantation's white owner. She's black but looks white, and, as heir to two worlds, she wonders how to get along in either. She knows that the promise of a remade world doesn't mean that the promise will be kept.

As for Doctorow, he has war on his mind. The book comes soon after Doctorow wrote an essay on George W. Bush that has become an Internet favorite. He wrote that Bush couldn't properly mourn the soldiers who have died in Iraq because he doesn't understand death. In Sherman, he draws a character who can mourn. It's Sherman who said not only that war is hell but that "its glory is allmoonshine."

For most soldiers, of course, there's little enough glory or moonshine. Doctorow gives us Arly and Will, two Confederates awaiting execution, characters straight out of Mark Twain. Here Doctorow makes the argument for war as theater of the absurd, and the novel sparkles each time the pair appear. It's Arly who believes that God has put him in this place for a purpose, and he'll scheme and lie and steal and beg to figure out what God needs himto do.

No one really notices the pair, even when looking directly at them. They get tossed from one side of the war to the next, wearing whichever uniform can offer a chance at survival. They're obscured by the dust - until a muzzle flash brings a brief moment of clarity and of madness. But for only enough time before the march marches on.

Mike Littwin, a former Sun columnist, now writes a column for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver

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