A better novelist than president

Max Byrd reviews first-time novelist Jimmy Carter’s novel of the Revolutionary War in tomorrow’s Sunday Times Book Review: “‘The Hornet’s Nest’: Founding Bubbas.”
The book is 465 pages long, and Byrd notes Carter’s lament that his editors compelled him to cut it down to that size. Byrd nevertheless expresses enthusisasm for the novel that appears sincere, although it does read a little tongue-in-cheek: “There is something very congenial in Carter’s voice as he lines up Ethan and Epsey and Kindred, sits them down on their hard 18th-century benches and has them utter paragraph after paragraph of earnest, good-natured, faintly implausible dialogue. And there is something quite incisive about his writing when the subject is farming, or woodwork, or the concrete details of daily life in colonial America: ‘The soft leather for the upper shoe was stretched into proper shape, holes were punched with an awl, and strong linen or flax thread was used for sewing. Although steel needles were available, everyone preferred to use stiff hog bristles. . . . All the toes were square, and the shoes could be worn on either foot.”’
Byrd explicitly acknowledges one of the novel’s weaknesses (others can be inferred from the review): “[F]or long stretches in the middle of the book the complex background material of Revolutionary politics and strategy completely displaces the Pratts and the Morrises. The schoolteacher’s voice takes over. The author seems determined to put down on paper every single fact he has gathered in his seven years of preparation. (Historical novelists call this ‘research rapture.’) Until the last quarter, when Ethan abandons the wounded Kindred to the British and then redeems himself in the American way, through violence, the human interest of the story goes slack and the narrative deteriorates into blocks of exposition.”
Byrd concludes by noting: “[T]he most unconsciously self-revealing moment comes when Carter ushers onto the stage an ambitious politician named Button Gwinnett, briefly governor of Georgia, remembered chiefly now as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence: ‘He was a solemn person, and although his receding chin and slightly pouting mouth gave a first impression of weakness, his brilliant mind, intimate knowledge of the political currents in Savannah and his accurate assessments of his peers made him a formidable politician. He never forgot a slight or a favor and was able to accumulate an intimate cadre of supporters who were almost fanatic in their loyalty to him. He was somewhat reclusive in his personal habits. . . . The intensity of his commitments was the basis of his political influence.’ In another era he might have written a novel.”
In another era, the novelist might have made a good president.


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