Jeffrey Stayton's Civil War

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It took Memphian Jeffrey Stayton 18 years of background research but only six weeks or so to compose This Side of the River (Nautilus Publishing), a novel that takes place following the end of the Civil War in 1865. That puts publication of This Side of the River 150 years after Appomattox, but it’s unlike any Civil War novel you’ve read, and the author, who teaches modern American literature at the University of Mississippi’s satellite locations in north Mississippi, knows it.

“It used to be a big tangle of baroque language where you couldn’t even find the verb,” Stayton said of the manuscript that led up to this, his debut novel. “Two-thirds of the way through that manuscript, widows started showing up — widows who were irate and on horseback with guns. Every time they showed up, it would kick things up a notch or two. I thought: Okay, here’s where the ‘life’ of the story is. As a writer, you follow the ‘life.’ Now the story is lean, more minimalist, more of a page-turner, and I’m like, thank God.”

Lean it is at 240 pages. So was one of the novels that inspired it: As I Lay Dying. Page-turner? This Side of the River is that too once disoriented but alert readers get their bearings.

Doesn’t hurt that Stayton has kept the chapters short and that he’s titled those chapters according to the character narrating. And what a tight-fitting mosaic of characters it is: Southern women (widowed or not, but most of them raging mad); white men (both the gray and the blue and still spoiling for a fight); freedmen and -women (still serving according to their prewar slave status); and at the center of this series of unconventional, interlocking narratives: a Texas Ranger teenager named Catullus McGregor Harvey, “Cat” Harvey for short.

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Cat’s plan is to lead a “regiment” of armed widows on horseback out of the South and up to Ohio in order to torch the home of William Tecumseh Sherman. That plan, readers realize soon enough, is as unhinged as the man who devised it. But the outrage of these women-warriors is real.

“The world has done turnt upside down and tipped over,” Cat says near the end of This Side of the River.

He might have added that the world’s been turnt inside out. Cat, for example, dresses in widow’s weeds and paints his face in circus-clown makeup. He’s often coked up on Vin Mariani and at one point adopts another circus element: an elephant named Goliath. He also sexually assaults several of the women in his charge, but he makes men of these women too — traumatized Southern women bent on revenge in the name of their lost husbands and destroyed towns and farms.

“What do I want?” Cat asks when questioned. “I want to light a fire in the North what them that lit the fires in the South have not yet seen.”

What's a mysterious character named Darkish Llewellyn, a moral focal point in this landscape of ruined lives, to do? Bear witness and listen as even the rocks cry out for mercy, not justice.

Again, this is not your average novel of the Civil War. This is not your average novel, period. The author thinks of it as “literary noir.”

“I’m a sucker for revenge stories, gangster films,” Stayton said in a phone interview. “And yeah, the novel is definitely literary, in that there’s no single narrator. It also deals with some of the darker aspects of human nature.”

That’s putting it mildly. But was Stayton hesitant to write in the voices of so many women, 19th-century women? His years of visiting battlefields, researching, and reading — diaries and memoirs of the period, county and state archives, biographies such as T.J. Stiles’ Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War — certainly show in Stayton’s handling of customs and dress, attitudes and speech. Stayton described all that research as his “launching pad” to the inner lives of his characters. But the faculty at Ole Miss — where Stayton, a Texas native, received his Ph.D. in English — provided him with something else: confidence. They encouraged their writing students to, in Stayton’s words, “go there” — go ahead, write, and see where it takes you.

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According to Stayton, “Barry Hannah, Cynthia Shearer, and Tom Franklin encouraged us to not worry with: How can I, a white male writer, write in the voice of whoever? They gave us permission. They encouraged us to be daring. I had a lot of fun ‘inhabiting’ the characters in This Side of the River and seeing what stories they had to tell.”

For the consequences of the Civil War on soldiers and civilians alike, Stayton looked to contemporary sources, such as the lives of child soldiers in today’s Africa and to accounts of post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition during the Civil War referred to as “nostalgia” or “soldier’s heart.”

“Men were not allowed to express how they felt during the Civil War, and the character of Cat Harvey was a way for me to gain access to that world of wounded warriors,” Stayton said. “I wanted readers to have a visceral reaction to him as a human being, to sense that Cat’s descent into madness is an expression of self-loathing. He’s a very violent, awful person. But he’s also committing all kinds of horrific actions against himself — his widow’s weeds and clown makeup are a provocation to the world ... that the world kill him. I wanted to paint a portrait of a man who’s broken.”

And here's another thing: In addition to being a writer, Stayton is a painter who borrows from the cubists for his oils on canvas. As in Faulkner and other literary modernists, so too the visual artists who presented multiple viewpoints within a single frame. Or as Stayton put it, “You may not have one authorized viewpoint. What you have is a full spectrum.”

Stayton is in the process of giving voice to that spectrum: He’s working with Archer Records in Memphis on an audio version of This Side of the River, due to be released in April or May. He’s drawn from actors at the Hattiloo Theatre and Chatterbox in Memphis, from actors in Oxford, Mississippi, and from nonactors such as local writers Corey Mesler and Richard Alley. Stayton, who tried his hand at stand-up comedy in the 1990s, has cast himself too: as William Tecumseh Sherman and as a character in the novel known as the Ringmaster. He said he still has to perform the eulogy to Goliath the elephant. But his days behind the microphone as a stand-up comedian are long gone:

“I had a lot of fun doing it. I even won a stand-up competition at Texas Tech. But that’s a young man’s game. You have to be fearless.” •

Jeffrey Stayton will be reading from and signing copies of This Side of the River at Burke’s Book Store, 936 S. Cooper, on Thursday, February 26th, 5:30-7 p.m., with the reading beginning at 6 p.m. To reserve a signed copy or for more information, call Burke’s at 278-7484.

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