Mr. Lincoln's Wars
A Novel in Thirteen Stories
William Morrow: 304 pp., $23.95
Toward the end of Adam Braver's "novel in thirteen stories," which swirls around a hero no less than Abraham Lincoln, the doomed and worn-out 16th president of the United States is engaged in a heart-to-heart with Orville Browning, old Kentucky friend, trusted confidant and political enemy: "I've been dissected into a million different me's," Lincoln says, "that have just left their shadow as President Lincoln."
Braver has a fondness for suggestive ironies and foreshadowing: A few pages on, we encounter Browning again, this time at Lincoln's autopsy, where the president is literally dissected, and his brain -- "[t]he mind that had written the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address" -- is handed from man to man. Braver's dissection of Lincoln's enduring shadow is no less pungent, and, at times, brilliant and heroic. "Mr. Lincoln's Wars" is, by turns, profane, erotic, gory, blunt and obsessed with the workings and -- in the various battlefield, hospital and assassination scenes -- the undoing of the human body. To Braver's credit, his quixotic effort to slap fat and bone on the Lincoln myth creates as many new mysteries as the ones it's meant to flesh out. We encounter a Lincoln who's a prophet, a lover, a tyrant, a calculating lawyer, a resentful son, a long-suffering husband, a haunted father and a martyred president. For the nameless Pennsylvania woman of "A Letter to the President From a Good Girl" who spills the beans on her abusive husband, thankfully killed in battle, he's an all-forgiving, God-like confessor. For John Wilkes Booth, who looms large in the book's most impressive episode, "The Necropsy," he's the macabre costar in a brutally ham-fisted act of political theater.
Throughout, the death of Lincoln's son Willie emerges as a framework for Lincoln's outsize capacity for grief and empathy -- both for his family and the nation. Mary Lincoln is as bats as she always is, but Braver invests his portrait with rare sympathy, as she seeks refuge in a Union hospital and, in the wake of the assassination, copes with shock, horror and a whopping dose of morphine. If Braver's efforts are undermined by misspellings of historical figures and occasional heavy-handedness, perhaps we can take refuge in Lincoln's own words: "In this troubled world, we are never quite satisfied."
Green Grass Grace
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster:
292 pp., $13 paper
Yo. Can you do a Philly accent? It's nearly impossible, and you've probably only really heard it from the mouths of David Brenner or the Dead Milkmen. Try saying this: "I was eating a hoagie and drinking a Diet Coke on the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge." Really round off those vowels. You're still not getting it.
But Shawn McBride does. Maybe too well. His debut is an unabashed cartoon of all things Philadelphian: cheese steaks, Tastykakes, Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn calling the Phils game. McBride's Philly is a lovable parochial dump where funeral homes offer "specialty coffins in Eagles green with the team logo tastefully stenciled on both sides." And it's where one Henry Toohey, age 13, wakes up each day, blows a spitball at his poster of Mike Schmidt (he hates the slugger for some reason), whips out Big Green (his trusty pocket comb), feathers back his hair, and goes about his Big Fat Irish Adolescence. It's 1984.
What ensues is a never-ending George Carlin routine that is as hilarious as it is exhausting, as Henry -- who has a flair for mockery, rapid-fire insults and curbside stand-up comedy -- unpacks the zany Irish-Catholic folkways of St. Patrick Street like a hyperactive, ADD-affected anthropologist. His flitting observations most frequently alight upon breasts, which, as a teenager, he's understandably fixated on: Each page of "Green Grass Grace" brims with metaphoric stand-ins that range from the botanical (various citrus fruits and members of the melon family) to the militaristic (torpedoes and their ilk).
But amid all the yuks, McBride manages to cram some real stuff in here too: adultery, alcoholism, first crushes, and, of course, brotherly love. And all from a book that begins with "Hellfire hallelujah and halitosis."