A Wild, Too-Witty Way with History
DAVID STACTON IS A LANKY, 39-year-old Nevada esoteric who affects cowboy boots and Zen, dislikes most contemporary fiction (“You can't write a tragic novel about a man who didn't get a three-dollar raise”) and produces novels, mostly historical, at a prodigious rate, sometimes three a year. They get high praise and are spectacularly unbought. He is a brilliant epigrammarian and his metaphors leap with with wit and polish, but a few maddening quirks have made him (like the late Isak Dinesen) something of a cult writer to a small but loyal coterie.
He is also unorthodox as an historical novelist, ignoring vast, bosomy sweeps of history and rummaging instead amidst its arcane sweepings. In Sir William, for instance, his best book, he ticked off the passionate domestic arrangements of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton as an absurd ménage à trois.
In his new People of the Book, Stacton takes on the Thirty Years' War. Most novelists tackling this subject abandon hope of encompassing its huge complexity, and retreat into a jagged brooding upon some isolated, cruel fragment. Stacton is no exception—though he launches flurries of elegant and ironic darts up and down its hairy flanks, he fails to subdue the animal. But he has produced a troubling and fantastic book.
Even for this age, which thinks itself reasonably well schooled in savagery, the Thirty Years' War outstrips all normal tolerances for absorbing dreadfulness and terror. It worked too great and too lasting destruction. From 1618 to 1648, all across the center of Europe, Protestant and Catholic armies, Swedes, Laplanders, Bohemians, Austrians, Spaniards, Englishmen, Frenchmen blundered against each other. Most of the soldiers lived off the dying countryside, paid by plundering the plunder they took until it became a profession, like banking or the law.
In People of the Book Stacton sets up a duel plot. One follows the fortunes of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, the other recounts the fate of an orphaned boy and his little sister who try to make their way across Germany from their ruined home to refuge with an imagined uncle. What Stacton achieves is less an historic tapestry than some brilliant notes toward a new-wave war film as it might have been photographed by a 16th century painter.
A strange, gray, northern half-light infuses the screen. Incidents loom like elephants; vital historic events are acted out by ants. Scraps of local legends, witches and hovering spirits appear. Trees dangle with peasants hung up in groups and beaten until, sometime after death, the relaxing flesh finally releases the coins they had hidden about their bodies. A real-life magician swims into focus, living in a palatial, abandoned nunnery and playing a kind of upside-down Prospero to a gang of cutthroats. Again and again the big blond myopic head of Gustavus Adolphus balloons into view. Beyond this Protestant king, who is presented as the one man really capable of bringing order into this world, tiny figures whirl, clot together, scatter across a ravaged countryside.
All this won't be of much help to your European History class. But nobody who stays with People of the Book is likely to complain. Early on, he will have rushed off to an encyclopedia to learn about the real war that way, returning to find that Staction's brash thumbnail assessments are provocative and relevant once you know the names and numbers of the war's great players. Louis XIII's genius Richelieu, for instance, has a “tendency to produce himself, like a rabbit, out of a hat”
Stacton has words to make his scenes and sensations sharp-edged. Gustavus Adolphus is knocked from his saddle by a musket shot, and Stacton writes. “The bullet entering was warm and horrible and swift as an attack of indigestion.”
David Stacton writers almost too well. His epigrammatic pronouncements become a kind of disease, like bad punning. He does not know when to stop.
A great moment arrives. A character or action is briefly poised. What will happen? Too often what will happen is that Stacton will retreat to a corner and shoot off a barrage of bon mots. “Pity is not a virtue but a wound” he will say smugly.
This is a pity. The book, provoking but absorbing, comes close to being a classic. Its cluttered near-wit blurs real wisdom, debases the high coinage of a real accomplishment: a skillful and urbane inquiry into evil, which Stacton, like most of his contemporaries is preoccupied with. Unlike most of them, however, he does not act as if he just invented it.