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The James Boys

by Richard Liebmann-Smith (Random House, 2008)

Richard Liebmann-Smith's The James Boys is a double parody, bringing into unlikely proximity the work of popular scholarship and the dime novel. The juxtaposition of different modes of discourse, often within the same sentence, generates a great deal of fun, especially at the beginning, when the contrast is fresh.

The conceit of this jeu d'esprit is that the two younger sons of Henry James, Sr — father of William (1842) and Henry, Jr (1843), but also of Garth Wilkinson (b 1845) and Robertson (1846) — known as Wilky and Rob, changed their names after the Civil War, to Frank and Jesse, thus becoming a very different pair of James brothers. That this development is almost monstrously unlikely is part of the joke, because it sharpens the edge of the bogused quotes from genuine biographers that the author uses to "buttress" his narrative.

In thus taking "French leave," the younger James boys were far from unique. The desertion rate for Union troops during the Civil War was scandalously high, among officers as well as enlisted men. Over the course of the conflict, by conservative estimate, more than two hundred thousand federal soldiers bolted from their units. Many of these absconders headed home, but Rob and Wilky — being subject to what Jean Strouse described as "the Jamesian system of moral absolutes," according to which "anyone who was not all good was all bad" — felt that they were effectively severing ties not only with the army but with the James family itself.

Two hundred thousand or more Union troops may have deserted, and Jean Strouse may have made the observation attributed to her, but The James Boys is not a reliable source of evidence for either proposition.

Not only do Wilky and Rob become Frank and Jesse James, but, in the course of holding up a train, they encounter their brother, Henry, who is returning from a tour of the West, with a view to writing it up. Henry is not best pleased to be carried off by his outlaw brothers (whom, in this very alternative account, their parents assumed to have died), but he is even less suited to their way of life. The sheer ludicrousness of The Master's hypothetical career in violent crime sustains Mr Liebmann-Smith project for many pages.

Here, for example, is Henry at the famous hold-up in Northfield, Minnesota. (In The James Boys, this is not the end of Jesse's exploits that it was in life.):

Amid the chaos of swirling dust, acrid gun smoke, shouting, shooting, shattered windows, and splintered hitching posts, Henry James was making the potentially fatal blunder of lapsing into his characteristic posture of observation. ...

So engrossed was Henry in the unutterable carnage unfolding all around him that he forgot he himself was a target — at least until a shot from Wheeler's perch at the Dampier Hotel bvlew off his high-crowned "Boss of the Plains" Stetson hat. (Had Henry not hunched down in his saddle owing to his constipated condition, the slug doubtless would ahve pierced his skull.) The author, abruptly awake to his peril, made a game attempt to execute the old Comanche maneuver of lying low in his saddle, hoping that his horse's neck and shoulders might shield him from the barrage. But as he leaned farther forward, the placket of his linen duster caught on his saddle horn, leaving him dangling against his horse's flank like a floppy rag doll.

Later on, Henry flees to Paris, not in search of Old World inspiration but to evade the long arm of American justice. He is followed thither by William Pinkerton, who is convinced that Henry is involved in an international crime ring — right into the apartment of another famous writer. Mêlée ensues.

Henry hastily complied with the detective's harsh command, dropping to his knees and reaching hard for the bullet-pocked ceiling. What Pinkerton had failed to foresee, however, was the presence in the salon of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, the colossal Nimrod of the North. Unintimidated by the interloper's gleaming guns, the Russian giant sprang to his American confrere's defense, pouncing on the detective from behind with the full weight of his gargantuan frame and sending him sprawling, mustache to the marquetry. As the stunned lawman's revolvers clattered harmlessly across the floor, he tried gamely to struggle to his feet, but he was no match for the massive Muscovite and the furious horde of the French realists who, emboldened by the courageous example of the author of Fathers and Sons, descended upon the lawman en masse and proceeded, in the common idiom, to beat the living crap out of him. Flaubert, who had studied the military arts as a lieutenant in the National Guard curing the Prussian invasion six years earlier, leaped into the fray and held the startled private eye in an eye-bulging headlock while Alphonse Daudet kneed him sharply in the balls and Émile Zola, with his powerful oarsman's arms, pummeled him repeatedly in the belly. Even the fastidious Edmond de Goncourt deigned to risk creasing his shiny patent-leather pumps by getting in a few crisp kicks to the intruder's prominent derrière.

Surely, "the furious horde of French realists" is one of the choicest forbidden pleasures in modern literature. It's as rich, in its way, as a collage by Max Ernst.

At the heart of The James Boys, however, is a romance. It may be a comic romance, but neither that nor the fact that she is fictional relieve the author of the need to invest his heroine with a life that, to some readers, she may not have. Elena Hite, a fictional creation, staggers as a character beneath a carload of Victorian clichés. She is tall, shapely, blonde, and very beautiful. She is also intelligent and flirtatious. In short, no man can resist her. Nor can she resist the attentions of most men. The daughter of a railroad millionaire, she has had to leave her native Hartford because her scandalously free life — which she, of course, high-mindedly defends — has led to ostracism. (It is, after all 1876.) Her romantic partner is none other than William James, at this point a coming young researcher in psychic maladies. Elena, having improbably sojourned with Frank, Jesse and Henry James out in Kansas, finds herself even more improbably sent to be treated by the Harvard professor in Cambridge.

Unlike Henry, whose tribulations draw their comic power from the sheer bliss of watching the most premeditated of American men of letters completely lose control of his life, Elena does not make us laugh. We may smile, because Mr Liebmann-Smith commands his impudent idiom with the authority of a lion tamer, but, probably because it is entirely fictional, Elena's story cannot deploy the contrafactual charms that make Edmond de Goncourt's crisp little kicks so giggleworthy. Instead, she wears the Augustan, clear-browed impassivity of the Statue of Liberty — who might actually have made a better choice for this game. Here is Elena in Kansas.

As a woman of relatively meager years and abundant privileges, Elena was used to enjoying both a protected illusion of invulnerability and a hefty sense of entitlement. Even in the face of the harsh lesson of Hartford, she had continued to live as if she could carry on as she pleased without suffering any untoward consequences. But now, in the middle of a bad night, she became cringingly aware of the jeopardy to which she had so recently exposed herself — in putting herself not only at the mercy of a gang of notorious cutthroats, but also in the path of possible arrest, with the attendant prospect of even greater shame and disgrace than she had already known.

Trollope might have made this genuinely funny, but not in a way that would lend itself to incorporation here. At the climax of the novel, indeed, it would be very difficult to think, were one (improbably) asked to do so, of wit as delicate as Trollope's. Even Mr Liebmann-Smith has a bit of difficulty navigating a carnal encounter between Elena and William with nothing firmer than his deadpan parody of Victorian prose. If we truly cared about Elena at this moment, we would probably find the scene offensive; the fact that we don't is a measure of how far the joke has outrun its course.

Beneath the farce of Henry James's having his "Boss of the West" hat shot off his head, beneath the naughty bits of William James's introduction to "the gamahuchic arts," The James Boys beguiles the reader with an unlikely sentiment: the joy of wreaking contemptuous revenge on the legion of boldly mousy biographers and historians who have attempted to compensate for a lack of proper source materials by wallpapering their books with "must have thoughts" and "would have knowns." If nothing else, Mr Liebmann-Smith has made sure that his tone of voice never varies from the overly scrupulous crawl of speculative narrative (that there is no speculation whatsoever in his narrative is itself part of the joke) except for the occasional incongruous, laughter-provoking turn of phrase (see "living crap," above). Even the smudge of ennui that blots the last quarter of the book evokes the discontent so often excited by academics looking for a breakout. We therefore close with the pious hope that the example set by The James Boys will shame publishers into rejecting further examples of desperately overblown chronicles — or at least laugh them to scorn. (August 2008)

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