Landsman: A Novel

Landsman: A Novel

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by Peter Charles Melman
     
 

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As fictional characters go, few embody such striking contradictions as cardsharp Elias Abrams: Jewish by birth, he joins the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Indeed, the question of duality runs deep through this novel — not only is Elias a Jew defending the right to oppress a people, but after he helps to commit a horrific crime, he finds himself

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Overview

As fictional characters go, few embody such striking contradictions as cardsharp Elias Abrams: Jewish by birth, he joins the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Indeed, the question of duality runs deep through this novel — not only is Elias a Jew defending the right to oppress a people, but after he helps to commit a horrific crime, he finds himself unexpectedly overtaken by the power of love. Exploring themes of literature, redemption, atonement, and love, this novel delivers a startling dose of moral ambiguity, keen insights into the human condition, and unexpected moments that devastate with their casual simplicity.

Editorial Reviews

Booklist
"At times ribald and always real, Melman creates a rich and authentic story."
Publishers Weekly
A barely literate hard-bitten gambler and petty criminal, Elias Abrams, the 20-year-old cardsharp hero of Melman's solid debut, flees hometown New Orleans (and a bogus murder charge), joins the Confederate Army and realizes "every circumstance of his life now conspires to kill him." He survives the infantry as he had the city-using his wiles, card skills and fists-until his colonel hands over an envelope containing a charming missive from Nora Bloom, a young New Orleans maiden who wrote a support-the-troops letter at the urging of her rabbi. Unexpectedly stirred, Elias begins a correspondence and finds himself obsessively fantasizing about her. A battlefield injury leads to a furlough during which he returns to the city to meet both Nora (he falls in love) and cronies from his seedy past, who use his new flame as leverage to draw him into a sinister plot. Readers will find no fault with the colorful portrait of Civil War-time New Orleans, its squalid underworld and small Jewish enclave, or Melman's portrayal of army life (more hurry-up-and-wait than cannons and sabers). There is certainly no shortage of Civil War fiction; this is one of the better offerings. (June) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781582434148
Publisher:
Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
04/28/2008
Edition description:
First Trade Paper Edition
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
1,169,252
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

9

Within hours of first receiving the letter and shortly after several well-played hands against a trio of wealthy lieutenants, Abrams has won a plentiful supply of writing material, another growing rarity in camp. At present, he is seated with a plankwood desk drawn across his knees, a Gorham dip pen nibbled between his teeth, his gaze trained upward in thought. Eyes aloft, he soon notices an enormous mass of dark clouds gathering to the northwest. The pressure of the atmosphere has dropped sharply, the sounds of camp appearing a hollow, tinnier echo of a life usually steeped in richer air. Few seconds pass before the first brilliant flash of lightning strikes, followed by a deep rumble of thunder. Eager to beat the advancing storm, Abrams writes faster, more haphazardly, blunting his nib, but three lines in, he knows the race is lost. He gets as far as Dear Miss Bloom I seet Myself now to saye my thanks to You for ever thing you have rote in that letter of yours it was nice to here that People like yourself are lookin out for People like Myself i can onely hope that before the storm comes down hard upon him. Soldiers scurry about as if the enemy has caught them unawares, sledge-hammering what few tent pegs remain, shouting nervously as they tighten ropes in the vain hope of staying dry while canvas flaps in the wind. Trees creak and quiver. The rain arrives an instant later, first in large splattering drops, then in cords, in torrents, in absolute sheets of water. Atop the unremitting boom, the call of a world in quake, huge bolts of lightning fork in the sky, trailed by terrifying crash upon crash of thunder. For those of a Biblical turn, the din's quick and violent renewal suggests pagan gods come to destroy themselves with wrath. Not a permanent destruction, however, but one swiftly lost to clamorous rebirth so that they might again render themselves destroyed.

And again, and again, continuing with this, some perverse game of rage and riotous resurrection, until such a thing admits itself tedious, which in the course of mankind's damnation, it never once will.

It is the most powerful storm Abrams has ever experienced. Recoiling from the driven rain, hand clamped down on his bowler, he scuttles for refuge under a large poplar along with several men he has never met. He is sopping wet. In his grip, his letter he has been composing now drenched beyond repair. The others look about them slack-jawed, their eyes worried, muttering of Noah, of Horsemen, of plagues and pestilence. In the squall's intensity and in their fear, Abrams, too, interprets a harbinger for which he has no words but feels in his bones. Silas Wolfe, if scheming to kill him, has taken his time about it. Although unsure whether the New Orleans law is seeking him, Abrams trusts that Wolfe has somehow conspired to lay the blame at his feet. The threat of Cobb and Petitgout has thus far proven empty. For the moment, the Union army slumbers. Yet of plagues and pestilence, Abrams is familiar with the ways of the locust. He knows they may sleep for months on end, often years, lying dormant beneath the earth. Crops grow lush above them. Lovers wed, houses are built, babies get born. Ignorant life is lived. But when the rains inevitably come as they must, their waters awaken, like seedlings grown of Satan, a multitudinous ruin whose single-minded purpose is the destruction of everything in its path.

And so, Abrams' eyes clamp shut with each thunderclap. Shivers run down his spine. The storm has wrought in him an irrational fear, one that constricts the soaked, clammy flesh over his ribs with each burst above. While the tempest rages, he dwells on the murder from which he cannot flee. He sees the back of the dead man's head on that fine parlor Oriental, the black blood slowly cooling, the stab wound administered by Wolfe perfectly lethal. It lingers with him. The vision of this death has proven inescapable, embittering his thoughts and spittle. It has begun to haunt his dreams. It oppresses his days. Guilt remains with him, and grows.

In such awareness, one fist whitens around the letter in panic, the other clutching the poplar's black bark. He has been seized with dread, there is no explaining it. Wet and cold, his teeth chattering, he cannot stop the knocking of his knees. He is a bad child, awaiting the one, true rebuke.

It is simply a matter of time.


A week passes. The earth has dried, the sun has resumed its position above, and Abrams has calmed. Alone, he now chuckles at the foreboding he assigned the storm. Fool, he chastises himself. Damned, damned fool. Rather, those drier days later, he shifts his thoughts back to a more immediate and frustrating concern, namely the letter he cannot seem to finish. After a half-dozen fruitless attempts, his stock of paper has dwindled, his inkwell run dry. He has taken himself in hand on several occasions between drafts, late at night, deep in the woods away from the other men committing the same sin of Onan. His cock hardened in his callused grip, his eyes closed, he takes a lover's time in constructing this Nora Bloom whose face he has never seen but with whose mind he feels intimately acquainted. He forms her from a composite of every woman he has known. The long legs of Nance, the full, brooding lips of Belinda, Ruth's ample bottom. The plump Latin breasts of Frederica, Marie's brunette, Gallic mane. Henrietta's favorite postures and Eudora's blessed talents. Out in those woods, Abrams feels the heat of these women-as-one on his neck, their sweet breath on his belly, their tongues teasing. He groans, and so quickens the pace of his tugs. He now tastes this imaginary Nora, he licks her from foot to crown, buries his face in her soft-thistled hair. He cannot satisfy the craving within him, he grinds his teeth as he tugs, for he feels the wetness of her tight, virgin sex on his, of his slow, glistening slide inward. Her hot gasps intermingle with his own, her moans, her whimpers of joy-he cannot stop himself-he pulls and pulls like a driven fool, his breaths rasping, until, like the heavens' eruption of only a week before, the lightning behind his eyes explodes madly, his temples boom with thunder, his jaw clenches as his body arches in an orgasm of pleasure and abandoned procreation.

Afterward, he sighs, deflated by the release and the disappointment of having come to, once again, the shuddering reality of war. His problem, he knows, is the uncertainty. For what does he expect of her, anyway? That she continue to write him, a nameless stranger? That she sit before an artist in her Sabbath finest, holding her pose long enough so that her image might be indelibly made for his eventual adoration? Or that she, after the war has at last ended and they have met breathlessly face-to-face, one day dare to love him for the person he is, transgressions and all? Preposterous. As a result, everything he wishes to say logjams in an exasperating muddle somewhere between his cluttered mind and crimped right hand, forcing him to curse and ball up the paper fiercely. After his seventh failure in as many days, he stands with a last obscenity and seeks out Carlson.

He finds the professor puffing on his cherry heartwood pipe and thumbing through a copy of the Illustrated Manual of Operative Surgery and Surgical Anatomy. Beside his knee, a chapbook of Shakespeare's sonnets. "Ah, Abrams," Carlson grins, "do sit. I've been learning all about the meat behind the soul. Seems our blood boils as much in truth as it does in metaphor."

"I ain't got time," Abrams replies soberly. "We got cards to pitch, you and me."

Carlson's smile widens as he gently puts his book down. "The hell we do."

Abrams shifts his weight. "I mean it. I'm wanting for paper." His stare says he is not kidding.

"My, my, but you're a starchy son-of-a-bitch." Carlson is already rummaging through his haversack for some stationery. "Sit, smoke with me."

Together by Carlson's fire pit, over mugs of a repellent brew of corn bran and potato scrapings, Abrams soon confesses the root of his needs. Carlson has noticed how guarded his companion is when it comes to speaking about himself to others, and therefore does not embarrass him for it. The teacher within takes dominion, becomes Socratic in the manner of past masters, asks Abrams what he wants the letter to say, what tone he would like to adopt, what he would like the ultimate aim of the correspondence to be. Abrams replies by furrowing his brow, fuming on his pipe, doffing his bowler, replacing it, digressing about card games recently won or lost-whatever he can do to show his discomfort at the current topic without admitting to it outright. Carlson, in turn, broods over each response, and with fingers bridged, comes to a hard conclusion: this young man is ignorant of almost all things tender. "I got ten dollars," offers Abrams at last, "says you can write my mind better'n me."

Though he needs the money, money he would like to send home along with the Confederate pay no soldier has yet received, Carlson has been an exceptional teacher for too long. "Can't do it," he sniffs, aligning his spectacles. "Plagiarism's nothing short of the Devil's own epistle." Abrams bursts into laughter. "Then your Devil's got a helluva lot more time for writing'n mine." He spits. "Plagiarism, shit."

"Man's got to have his standards, Elias. Without them we'd be homo vulgaris, content to kill, thieve, spread vice and perniciousness without a scintilla of homage paid to human integrity. Without standards, we'd be lost."

Abrams stops. He smiles. He begins a slow, steady applause.

"Don't mock me, son. It shows a palpable disregard."

"Out here, you speak to me of standards." Abrams looks wide-eyed about them. "Out here?"

"One's beliefs should never be contingent upon geography, I've found."

"Hell's bells, John Lee, this whole goddamned war's about geography."

"Be that as it may." Carlson folds his arms; he will not budge. "Now understand," he continues agreeably, "I'll gladly render whatever council's requested of me. But the letter, my boy, is yours."

Abrams sees that he has met in Carlson someone stalwart, something indefatigably true. He usually finds this type of absolutism amusing, meant for spoiled children in short pants, but in Carlson, Abrams admits to finding a stirring conviction. He has met few in his day who stand firm in the face of something larger than their own need. Appreciating this, his head falls into a nod. He spits into his hand, holding it aloft. "She writes me back impressed," he says, "I got a plug of tobacco, name of John Lee Carlson all over it."

Carlson, reluctantly, spits into his own. They shake and set to work. With permission, the teacher studies her letter, something Abrams has done countless times since its receipt. Over the past weeks, he has read and reread it, nibbling on mealy apples, wearing its paper thin at the creases, soiling it where his thumbs have held it fast. By now he can recite much of the text by memory, and while he dismisses her pride in their faith as little more than youthful fancy, he admires her for it as he now does Carlson's principles on plagiarism. That she possesses pride at all, in anything, he finds refreshing.

He delights in the letter's every word, but it is the concluding lines that move him most: Allow me to say that I hope you are well and protected from harm. That gentle rain greets you in times of aridity, that the sun warms your bones when they are most chilled. That you forever keep love enough in your heart to sustain you through even the most hateful hours. And finally, from this point onward, that you spend a moment each day remembering that though you may not know her face, a young woman lives who prays for your sake nightly. Abrams is not a soft man. He understands this. Nevertheless, in the kindness of such words so rarely met, even from those so vaguely intended as these, he is having a difficult time contextualizing what they actually mean. For lack of a better word, the letter's closing makes him feel oddly human.

When Carlson concludes his reading, he issues forth a long whistle of praise. "Fine hand, this girl has." Without further preamble, he adjusts his glasses, dips his pen, and smoothes the paper. "We'll commence whenever you see fit."

And so, with Carlson as scrivener, Abrams dictates the letter in halted, frustrated bursts. When he grows stymied, Carlson gently prods him through. The professor speaks of lubricating the cogs of the human heart, of its genteel vocabulary, of loves like Baucis and Philomen's, of Pyramus and Thisbe's, then that of the later-adapted Romeo and Juliet. He mines slowly, attempting to unearth the softness beneath the hardened exterior of a young man who, despite their differences, Carlson would like to believe is evolving into a friend.

An hour goes by before Abrams finally stamps his foot in exasperation, declaring, "And that's all that needs saying, goddamnit." Carlson passes him what they have drafted. With a stained index finger, he alerts Abrams to the more difficult spellings. Stylistically, the professor knows the letter is puerile, but he also knows that the girl, should they ever make acquaintance, will meet the honest Elias Abrams and not some polished likeness thereof. Its sentiment, though, Carlson finds unexpectedly beautiful.

He stands with a groan, placing the Panama upon his head. "I'll be off for my evening perambulation then." And with his hands tucked collegially behind his back, he walks away into the night.

In his own untrained hand, with fresh paper, pen and ink, Abrams is thus left alone to labor through the first and only letter of affection and thanks he has written in his lifetime:
Dear Miss Bloom,
It is with great pleasure that I write you this afternoon. Your letter to me was most satisfactory. I shall now go as far as to admit it was a joy and privilege to read. Please tell Reverend Gutheim thank you for thinking of us. He must be a good man. I am not too much for religion myself, but I believe I know what is good. I do not wish to sound so boastful, but I think that is true. Then allow me to be so bold as to say that what you have done for me is good, too. You say in your letter that you do not think you are too good at teaching. Here I must beg to differ. We do not know each other, as you say. But as you have taught me how to think of people I do not know in a better way, I must say that you have taught me something very special indeed.

I have not had much need in my life to write. I am without much talent for it. I see how my thoughts on paper do not show that I am capable of much intelligence off of it. For now, this makes no difference to me. It is plenty enough that I have the excuse to write at all.

It has also been a long time since I have been allowed to say what I am thinking. I therefore want you to know that I am thinking about your life and your happiness, like you said you are of me. I am thinking about your hands and I am thinking about the quantity of your smiles, hoping they are many. I am also thinking with great hope that you will write to me again. It has been a balm for my flagging spirit. Though faith comes to me in short supply, I hope you do not mind me closing by saying that you are the angel God has sent to one who is most in need.

Faithfully yours,
Pt. Elias Abrams, Company G, Pelican Rangers
"You tell anyone about this," Abrams demands of Carlson after he returns from his walk, "and I'll lop off your goddamned tongue, use it as a canteen stopper."

Carlson laughs, holding his palms innocently aloft. "Fear not," he says. "I've long believed a man's correspondence falls well within his personal province, one to be staked by him alone."

"Christ," sighs Abrams, "the trap you got on you." He folds the paper in thirds and, with borrowed wax and seal, binds it fast. He copies her address onto the face, dries the ink with a few gentle shakes in the air, and then slides the letter delicately into the canvas haversack he has slung over his shoulder. Done, he wipes his hands along his chest and exhales proudly.

"You've got reason to be satisfied," affirms Carlson. "It's a fine letter."

To this Abrams simply glowers and stomps off, leaving the professor to chuckle softly behind him and poke at the pit's ashes with a gnarled, fire-hardened stick. Sitting alone in the early night, Carlson soon hears the muffled, resonant, six-noted hoot of a great horned owl in the distance. Then, moments later, a faint response. Ever the man for leitmotif, his mood lightens all the more, for somewhere out in those Missouri pines he knows two souls now yearn for each other amid the advancing darkness.

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