Until now the only Russell Banks novel I had resisted reading was Cloudsplitter--not because of its length (750 pages) but because it belongs to one of my least favorite genres--the historical novel--and because of all Banks's novels it seemed the most committed to simple realism as an aesthetic strategy.
However, Cloudsplitter turned out to be much more interesting than I thought it might be, even if my impression of John Brown, the novel's ostensible protagonist, didn't really change much through reading it. He seemed to me, considered as an historical figure, a pretty one-dimensional character obsessed with religion and what he considered the primary affront to religion in his time, chattel slavery. After reading the novel, he still seems to me a pretty one-dimensional character obsessed with religion, etc. His commtment to the abolition of slavery was all-encompassing, but it amounted to a monomania (certainly the John Brown that emerges from this novel could be described by such a term), and while monomaniacs can be powerful presences in works of fiction--Captain Ahab comes to mind--that power is what makes them memorable, not any complexities of character that might be revealed.
Fortunately, Banks adopts in Cloudsplitter a narrative strategy similar to that which Melville uses in Moby-Dick, a strategy that takes advantage of the overwhelming personality of John Brown to maintain the narrative's dramatic interest but otherwise focuses much of the novel's attention on the charged relationship between Brown and the narrator of Brown's story, his son Owen. As with Ahab and Ishmael, we encounter John Brown through the entranced observations of Owen, and, like Ishmael, Owen is essentially the last man standing (in Ishmael's case, swimming), surviving the raid on Harper's Ferry to, eventually, tell us the tale of what led up to this singular event. Like Moby-Dick, Cloudsplitter filters our perceptions of its main character by presenting us with an account composed by a witness to events, in Owen's case someone with intimate knowledge of the personage involved and himself an important influence on those events, but nevertheless an account the fraught nature of which itself provides at least as much dramatic tension as the actions taken by the character motivating the narrative.
As far as I can tell, not that much is really known about Owen Brown, especially the years he spent after the raid on Harpers Ferry (he died in 1889). This gives Banks the opportunity to in essence create a fictional character to both narrate the novel and play an important role in it, allowing some further latitude in the portrayal of John Brown himself. Banks stays faithful to the known facts about Brown and the public events for which he is known, but of course most of the details about his domestic life (especially that part of it spent in North Elba, New York, the relation of which takes up most of Cloudsplitter) cannot be known, and Banks focuses his view of Brown and his family on and around these domestic episodes or on the trips Owen takes with his father to Boston and to London. These are the sections of the novel in which we most fully get to know both Owen and John Brown, and they are the elements that most fully redeem the book as "fiction." In comparison, the guerilla campaign waged by the Brown clan in Kansas and the attack on Harpers Ferry seem almost tacked-on, the inherent dramatic action of both de-emphasized and deflected, as if the last 200 pages had to be appended in order to certify Cloudsplitter as a proper "historical" novel.
The result, it seems to me, is that Cloudsplitter, despite its taking as its main character a "real" person, is not finally much different from Affliction in its approach to character and narrative. In each instance, the protagonist makes a forceful impression on the reader, but the effect is due to the manner in which the narrator, in each instance a first-person narrator close to the protagonist, renders not just the actions taken by the protagonist but his own anguished efforts to come to terms with those actions and his part in influencing them. While Rolfe Whitehouse has to do more "research" in order to reconstruct the last days of his brother Wade, Owen has to re-engage his own memories in presenting a narrative of his father's life thirty or more years after the experiences related. Both make good-faith efforts to capture these figures as they "really were," but we can only take them, or should only take them, as projections of the narrators' subjective powers of discernment. This does not mean the depiction of such characters is less truthful; it means the truth that does emerge is the truth involved whenever one human being struggles to understand the motives and the acts of another.
In the case of Owen Brown, the truth is that he never really does understand his father, except in the trivial sense that, given John Brown's consistency of thought and belief, he can usually predict what his father might say or do. As Walter Kirn puts it, "To his children, who follow him through frontier America like a band of nomadic Israelites, John Brown is an unmoved mover. His authority is absolute, and sometimes absolutely maddening." John Brown is, for Owen, a force of nature, and, ultimately, there seems little point in doing other than follow him where he will lead (although it is actually Owen who finally convinces his father to begin inflicting violence on those who would oppose him). Kirn suggests that Owen lives in an "existential funk" that arises from the "chronic shame" of never living up to John Brown's ideals, but I'm not sure this is quite right. Owen isn't so much ashamed of his failure to live up to these ideals as he is baffled by his inability to resist the need to act on them despite the fact he doesn't himself fully share them--he doesn't share John Brown's religious convictions at all, in fact. It is Owen's open confession of his bafflement, and his honest account of the way in which it informed his involvement with John Brown's self-declared war on evil, that animates this novel and raises it well above mere documentary-style historical fiction.