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Padgett Powell's most recent novel takes a postmodern look at the Civil War and the New South

Ghosts of War 

Padgett Powell's most recent novel takes a postmodern look at the Civil War and the New South

She wore lizard-skin boots to the grocery store and seduced a 12-year-old lawn mower thief. That's how Padgett Powell introduced her in "Trick or Treat," the opening story of his 1998 collection Aliens of Affection. Now, 10 years older, Mrs. Hollingsworth re-emerges as the title character of Powell's sixth book. Her destination is still the grocery store, but her lizard-skin traveling shoes and her penchant for Lolit-o, as she called him, are the least of her quirks.

Weary of smug liberalism, of plumbers whose low-slung pants reveal their cracks, of women with cell phones who talk "worse realtor/CEO goop than their male peers," Mrs. Hollingsworth commences a grocery list, which is less grocery list than meta-fictional laundry list of the post-modern (post-) Southern condition. Rather than jotting "field peas" or "Charmin" on her note pad, she pens the story of Memaw, who is chasing after her husband, Pawpaw, who has stolen her money--but more importantly, it seems, has unwittingly stolen Memaw's love letters from Lonnie Sipple, her pre-Pawpaw love interest (of whom Pawpaw knows nothing).

As Pawpaw flees on muleback, his bag of money (and letters) ablaze from the fire that Memaw set, Mrs. Hollingsworth's "grocery list" renders another man and woman, who may or may not have been Lonnie Sipple and Memaw (Sally Palmer) in earlier days. Add to those two unknowns a gathering in Holly Springs, Miss., of old men, specifically "three or four or five or six or seven black men who appear to be ancient." All of these characters spring from the list due to Mrs. Hollingsworth's preoccupation with the Civil War and its cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose name stuck in her head "like the hook of a pop radio tune."

In the world of her list, the man who can see a hologram of Nathan Bedford Forrest and recognize its significance will be eugenically engineered to found a new line of men in the New South. The telltale hologram will be cast by a ray gun commissioned by the aptly named media powerhouse Roopit Mogul. The two men whom Mogul enlists for the hologram casting, or blasting, are none other than Lee Harvey "Rape" Oswald and Ted "Hod" Bundy--criminals who slipped without warning into Mrs. Hollingsworth's list-world.

For all of its singular eccentricities, Powell's novel, like Michael Cunningham's The Hours, nods to Mrs. Dalloway. Both Woolf's and Powell's title characters share their novels with soldiers. But unlike the shell-shocked, suicidal Septimus Smith, Nathan Bedford Forrest isn't haunted by the war; it is he and the war that do the haunting. For Forrest to say Smith's words, "I have committed a crime," would be incomprehensible to Mrs. Hollingsworth and to the Southern writers, most notably Faulkner, who looked to the general as the quintessential untamed frontiersman fighter: an alternative to blue-blooded Virginians J. E. B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee.

Along with Faulkner, Caroline Gordon (None Shall Look Back) and Jesse Hill Ford (The Raider) tapped Forrest for their Civil War fiction, a genre that takes on new meaning in the hands of Mrs. Hollingsworth. With scant knowledge of the facts, her list may be the ultimate Civil War fiction, and one that belies the notion that any of our histories are free of such artifice. While the lies of novelists tell human truths, historical revisionists unmask lies that tell real lies, revealing that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but often more fictional.

"It was one thing to have a preposterous grocery list," Mrs. Hollingsworth thinks, "and another to have a list you did not control." Plot, like life, happens when you're making other plans, which is why the act of writing fiction may seem more life-like than the act of writing history. Though the list is of her own making, Mrs. Hollingsworth can't foresee "Rape" Oswald or "Hod" Bundy, any more than we could hear footsteps in the Dallas schoolbook depository or, 15 years later, in the Chi Omega house at Florida State. Mrs. Hollingsworth's list doesn't allow for all past unpleasantness, though: Oswald and Bundy may be projecting the hologram of Nathan Bedford Forrest, but the ray gun they're shooting belongs to Roopit Mogul, whose made-for-TV Forrest wears a J. Peterman duster rather than a Klansman's robe. Neither the reputed Grand Wizard Forrest nor the Forrest who denied membership appears on the list. Instead, he's a giant skateboarder ("five stories tall") wearing his Victoria's Secret garter belt, J. Edgar Hoover-style, under his duster.

With his giant hologram hovering like a Macy's balloon, it's unclear if the fictional Forrest will find his way--and whether the novel will. When Mrs. Hollingsworth returns from the store, she says, "I guess I had a goddamn epiphany." Readers may only guess whether they've had one, too.

  • Padgett Powell's most recent novel takes a postmodern look at the Civil War and the New South

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