WILDWOOD BOYS By James Carlos Blake William Morrow 384 pp., $24
James Carlos Blake, the descendant of an American pirate in the Caribbean, once said he wanted to write the most violent book in American literature.
In "Wildwood Boys," he might have succeeded. But the savage narrative isn't driven only by the body count nor the visceral horror in his story of barbaric guerrilla warfare; what makes this book truly horrific is the pure poetry and haunting beauty of Blake's writing.
This is the richly re-imagined story of William Anderson, the real-life bushwhacker protg of William Quantrill, the ruthless sacker of Lawrence, Kan. For most of the Civil War, Quantrill commanded lawless, Southern-sympathizing brigands whose mass murders, rapes, and calculated terror devastated pro-Union towns in the border states - until he was eclipsed by the living, gore-splashed myth who came to be known as Bloody Bill Anderson: "They said [Anderson] could commune with wolves ... that he could see in the dark like a bat, could smell any lie. He could know the thoughts of the dead when he stood over their graves. He could hear a human heartbeat at a distance of fifty yards. He never slept. It would not have surprised any who trafficked in such lore to learn he could set fires with a hard stare, could look hard at an overhead hawk and see the country all around as the raptor saw it."
Of course, historical fiction wouldn't succeed if it didn't disturb the placid waters of allegedly true history. Blake portrays Anderson as a moral monster: a lover of dumb animals and poetry; a cold-blooded guerrilla who questioned the massacre of civilians, but did nothing to stop it; a principled leader of soulless pirate-warriors such as Jesse and Frank James, and Cole Younger; a devoutly loyal son and brother; a pathological hater of Yankees; even a handsome and gallant romantic who marries a young prostitute because she reminds him of his spirited little sister - with whom he had a vaguely incestuous kinship.
Anderson's famous 1864 raid on Centralia, Mo., is recounted in graphic detail, reworked to blunt the razor-sharp edge of traditionally accepted accounts of the terror he wrought. And by the time Bloody Bill is shot dead a few months later, his bullet-riddled corpse photographed and desecrated by Union troopers, the reader actually feels some sympathy for one of the most prolific mass-murderers in American history.
Blake, who was born in Mexico and raised in Texas, is one of the rising stars in historical fiction, particularly where bad men make good stories. His first two novels, "The Pistoleer" and "The Friends of Pancho Villa," were based on the lives and loves of shootist Wes Hardin and the Mexican revolutionary Villa. His third novel, "In the Rogue Blood," won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and outstripped even Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" in sheer savagery. His fourth novel, "Red Grass River: A Legend," and a short-story collection called "Borderlands" proved he could navigate the human bloodstream with substance and style.
For the reader who can't turn his eyes away from the literary carnage, an uncannily natural sequel to "Wildwood Boys" was published earlier this year. "The Chivalry of Crime," by Desmond Barry, explores the unholy terror of Jesse James, from his youth with Bloody Bill Anderson to the aftermath of his assassination by Robert Ford (reviewed Jan. 13). Barry's book, similar to Blake's in tone, style, and cruelty, allows readers to examine the very root of violence in human nature and explore the American fascination with our outlaws.
Wyoming newspaperman Ron Franscell is the author of 'Angel Fire' and 'The Deadline.'
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society