By Howard Bahr
Reviewed by Julia Oliver
Master novelist Howard Bahr, who has Alabama connections but is primarily and literarily Mississippian, has moved on in time from his triumvirate of Civil War fiction (The Black Flower, The Year of Jubilo, and The Judas Field) to almost the midpoint of the twentieth century. The elegiac tone of those novels has carried over into this brilliant, often visceral narrative about men who worked on or around trains in the great era of American railroads. Occasionally, there are flashes of omniscient overview: “The world the railroad men inhabited was an alien masculine world with a language all its own—the runic timetables, the peculiar idioms, the complicated rules... [It was] a lonely, complex, unforgiving place.”
The setting is just before Christmas 1940, as two locomotives travel toward each other on a snowy night via a lonely stretch between Meridian and New Orleans. Known as Pelican Road, this route is defined as “two hundred and seven miles of ballasted heavyweight main line rail...The name had always been there, older than the railroad, older than any of the men who worked on it now.” Engineer A. P. Dunn, aboard the southbound freight, thinks about the last trip he made during a snowfall seventeen years before, but he cannot recall the events of the past few hours or how he got the gash on his forehead. Meanwhile, on the luxury passenger train Silver Star where “everybody rides first class,” brakeman Artemus Kane ruminates about his wartime experiences in French trenches, the marriage he had “crawled away from...as gratefully as he would an opera,” and his current lover. Significant stories of these and other characters evolve and mesh in an orderly progression that suggests a quasi-mythical connection.
The description can make a reader feel a sense of deja vu. Outside the train windows, scenery flies by in “light the color of old pearls.” The cacophony of whistles, brakes, and wheels-on-rails is almost audible. This majestic, metaphorical novel deserves a long shelf life and many, many readers.
Julia Oliver’s novel Devotion will be published in a paperback edition in September. As Judy Oliver, she writes a column for Montgomery’s Elite Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.