Now a voice spoke low from the face of the deep.
Rarely before have I read a first sentence from a book that so adequately set the tone for everything to follow than this opening sentence from Robert Kloss’ Alligators of Abraham. Of course the great openings we’ve all come to know so well spring to mind, if I might so bold as to make the comparison. And who’s to say this one may not well join those in time?
This voice from the “face of the deep” takes you by the ear and sits you down in the gloom of an ancient campfire and never eases its grip, and never, not ever, spares both the beautiful and the brutal details.
You could say this book is about the Civil War in part, about family relationships in part. But as Harry Crews so famously said, this is what happens in this remarkable novel. Crews would lean in close and perhaps say, yes, but what is this book about?
And the distinction is one of the most important aspects of truly effective literature. It seems Kloss has a unique understanding of this concept, giving us a historically-grounded novel that presents the “Brothers War” in superb prose and a three-book structure about loss and resurrection, about history, true history told from a timeless, all-seeing narrator who dares you to look away while the story rolls out in a series of “Ands” that never becomes labored.
If you’ll indulge me a somewhat lengthy series of quoted paragraphs, allow me the pleasure of sharing Kloss’ use of “Ands” to create a rolling thundertrain of storytelling.
And we begin in the miles of their construction, of digging with peeled backs and brows, with spades and pickaxes and shovels, and the lines of wagons obscured for the dust they inspired, the clouds that seemed a warning or a foreboding and arrived with tins of peaches, of beef and ham, of beans and beets, with shovels and beams and guns and tarpaulin and miles of wire, spooled.
And those men were called brutes when they worked with vigor, and they were called dogs when they lagged. Those men lashed until their backs striped with blood while the others stood by with sullen eyes. “Let this be a lesson to you men,” it was said by officers who spat into the blood pools, “I will not indulge your idleness.” Those lines of bloody sneering men, those men of your generations, those men of your father’s generations, and those generations long prior, and those generations ever after.
And when the distant smoke spiraled and flickered in the waves of heat, there was a man who told your father, “The bastards are smoking us out” and by this he meant the natives would burn them to death. Your father who obscured the sun with his hand and saw nothing but smoke, and yet he felt wise in those moments, saying, “New life is born from the fires of the plain.”
And in the dust of once mountains and the ashes of prairies fled the dusty figures of your fathers, their marches along those smoldered roads and valleys, your fathers tanned by the dust as if men of leather, their eyes alone, winking and alive.
This energy Kloss has caught like bottled lightning never lets up over the course of the entire book. A combination of what must have been exhaustive period research and then the level of deftly executed prose, sentences so carefully crafted, is this novel’s heart, the conduit through which Kloss unfolds a tale unlike anything I’ve yet read and rarely enjoyed so thoroughly.
At times, I thought of my father, a Civil War buff who kept pictures of Robert E. Lee (we are from the South after all) on the walls of his bedroom and countless books on the subject scattered across his bed, on nightstands, the floor. I went into Alligators of Abraham wondering if there could possibly be a story, fact or fiction, which could engage me considering the level of exposure I had been subjected to from my old man.
Those concerns were put to rest as the novel unfolded and became, among other things, about a father and son, and a tragic father at that, fallen from some grace in the distant past and transformed into a grieving shadow of his once strong self by loss and the search for eternal life in the most fascinating means imaginable. I related in the most profound way possible.
Alligators of Abraham is an ambitious novel that does not disappoint, with Kloss stripping the paint from the canvas of history with a fluid but respectful hand to somehow retell the story of us all anew and with an honesty both refreshing and entertaining.
The Alligators of Abraham, by Robert Kloss. Mud Luscious Press, 2012. 214 pages. $15.00, paper.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the collection, The Same Terrible Storm, recently nominated for the Chaffin Award. His work has been published widely and been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, as well. He was a judge’s selection winner in 2012 for the Still Short Story Award for his story “Lost Ball in High Weeds,” a chapter excerpt from his upcoming novel, Brown Bottle. He survives in Eastern Kentucky. To find out more, visit him online here.