Laird Hunt’s slim sixth novel wields outsized power. Like the fairy tales the narrator’s mother told her as a girl, the deceptively plain language of “Neverhome” vibrates across the spectrum of human experience. “My mother liked to start one story and finish off with another,” she recalls. “Hansel and Gretel would end with Rumpelstiltskin, and the Snow Queen with Mother Hen.”
Constance changes her own story when she disguises herself as a man and enlists in the Union Army, leaving behind her husband, Bartholomew, on their Indiana farm because “I was strong and he was not.”
The deaths she sees and inflicts as a soldier transform her into a different, harder person, but she commits her most murderous acts while wearing a dress. The Civil War scars her to the bone, yet the tale she elliptically unfolds reveals that her most primal wounds were received in childhood. She’s an epic American character chronicling a central moment in the formation of our national identity, forged in sorrow, betrayal and blood.
Hunt, who began his career as an avant-garde writer willing to keep readers guessing about what exactly was going on, has purified his technique to craft a relatively straightforward narrative that’s ultimately just as mysterious as such early novels as “Indiana, Indiana,” except that now, stripped of meta-fictional flourishes, the roots of those mysteries in the enigmatic workings of the human heart are more apparent.
Constance does keep things from us, but the basic facts of her odyssey are clear. She enlists under the name Ash Thompson and becomes famous in the war’s early days as “Gallant Ash,” who gives his jacket to cover a girl who tears her chemise while climbing a tree to cheer the Union troops. Ash endures the horrors of combat, is wounded and walks away from a field hospital to evade the almost certain amputation of an arm. Nursed back to health by a local woman who then reveals her gender to a Union officer, she’s thrown in a lunatic asylum and abused until it seems her spirit is broken. She escapes after wreaking revenge on her keepers and heads for home, pausing at the Ohio residence of a general who was kind to her.
We know from the memories of youth and marriage that accompany Ash to war that Constance has a lot of unfinished business waiting in Indiana. In those memories, the mother who taught her, “We do not ever turn our cheek,” stands facing an angry crowd brandishing torches. Constance and Bartholomew are isolated by their different ways of grieving for the baby who died an hour after birth; at their fraught parting, her husband tells her, “you are already gone.”
Her apocalyptic homecoming seems the preordained conclusion to Ash’s dark transformation and Constance’s anguished memories. “Neverhome” moves forward with the stark inevitability of a Greek tragedy in a series of haunting scenes, each illuminating some essential element of what is happening to the protagonist and to America.
In Ash’s first battle, “You couldn’t see the colors, you would have thought it was a mirror. Like the central job of it was we was fixing to fire at ourselves.” Once humane enough to tuck a note with his address into the shirt of a dead Confederate soldier, Ash by the time of passing a final battlefield on route to Indiana has no further thought for a wounded boy calling for water than, “He was crawling to a grave that would open at any moment, and it made me tired to look at him.”
Dressed again as a woman, Constance protests the prettified war stories recounted by an old man in Ohio and gets a lesson in the need for comforting fictions. His grandson is coming home “without half his face and missing both his eyes,” replies Weatherby. “You say something one way instead of the other often enough and maybe the thing quits crawling into your bed with you and stroking its claws at your cheek.”
“Not all things disappear quickly,” Constance discovers back in Indiana. Years later, she hears another woman who went to war voice the feeling common to many veterans, male and female: “I made it back, sure enough, but never felt I’d made it home.”
Hunt may see the uses of comforting fictions, but he prefers the sterner satisfactions of truth-telling. His grand, bleak drama of a woman’s and a nation’s defining ordeal is nonetheless exhilarating for the beauty of its prose and the depths of its unsentimental compassion.
Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar and the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and American, 1931-1940.”
Little, Brown: 256 pp., $26.00