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Book Review: Nostalgia: A Novel, Dennis McFarland


Published December 26, 2013 at 5:03 a.m.


Is post-traumatic stress disorder a timeless side effect of war or a 21st-century buzzword? Readers may find themselves asking that question as they delve into Nostalgia, the powerful new novel from Brattleboro-area author Dennis McFarland.

Malcolm Gladwell came down on the latter side of the debate in a 2004 New Yorker piece called “Getting Over It,” where he contrasted a post-World War II novel in which a veteran simply “gets over” his trauma with a post-Vietnam novel in which a veteran is haunted by his past. “Somehow in the intervening decades our understanding of what it means to experience a traumatic event has changed,” Gladwell concluded.

Well, maybe. But, as personal accounts of invisible war wounds flood in, it seems more than a little callous to instruct veterans to “get over it” and move on. (A July 2013 New Yorker story by David J. Morris revisited the PTSD controversy with more evidence and nuance than did Gladwell’s piece.) Moreover, other scholars argue that PTSD has existed from the beginning of time under different names, sometimes unexpected ones. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for instance, soldiers who experienced a mysterious malaise were often described as suffering from “nostalgia.”

That historical footnote is the seed of Nostalgia. McFarland tells the story of Summerfield Hayes, a 19-year-old Civil War private and star baseball pitcher who arrives at an army hospital with a striking condition. While everyone in the novel who witnesses Hayes’ symptoms explains them a bit differently, modern readers will immediately identify them as PTSD.

“Baseball-loving Civil War soldier with PTSD” would serve as a perfect pitch for an Oscar-bait movie. Yet not a single passage in Nostalgia feels gimmicky, generic or opportunistic. On the contrary, McFarland — author of six previous acclaimed novels — has immersed himself so thoroughly in the language, physical details and ideas of Hayes’ world that this fiction sneaks up and envelops the reader. By the end, it’s hard not to see Hayes as a living rebuke to Gladwell’s thesis, even though he never existed.

The novel opens in a highly unsettling state of medias res. Bleeding from shrapnel wounds, “adrift in body and mind,” young Hayes has been abandoned in the Virginia woods by his regiment. We won’t discover where or how he was wounded, or why he was abandoned, for many pages, because Hayes’ troubled mind prefers to focus on memories that predate his first and only combat experience. In particular, he dwells on “the sole scrap of peace within him”: recollections of a regimental baseball game.

For its first 70 pages, Nostalgia alternates between present-tense descriptions of Hayes’ wanderings in the forest — jarringly interspersed with fragmentary memories, hallucinations and dreams — and extended flashbacks to his life when it made sense to him.

We learn that he was recently orphaned, that he pitched for a Brooklyn ball club, and that he enlisted in the Union Army in part because he’d begun having “the wrong kind of dreams” about his older sister and beloved companion, Sarah. Bossy and sensible, Sarah is a grounding presence in the flashbacks, while Hayes’ own mind remains a confusing place to be.

Some readers may find this extended opening daunting, rife as it is with disordered information. But McFarland’s masterful prose pulls us through the chaos and into the novel’s second chapter, in which Hayes wakes in a Washington, D.C., hospital to find himself being tended by, of all people, Walt Whitman.

In this year of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, we’ve been hearing a lot about the great American poet’s work nursing wounded soldiers. Who better than a lightly fictionalized Whitman to watch and wait — patient and empathetic, with his “maternal maleness” — as Hayes finally begins to confront the specter of what happened to him on the battlefield?

Physically sound but unable to speak or write his name, Hayes appears to many observers like a mere “malingerer” trying to delay his return to the front. A doctor diagnoses him with “nostalgia,” which usually earns the afflicted a trip to the asylum. Only Walt (as Hayes knows the poet) argues that the young soldier be allowed to heal in his own time and way.

From this point on, Nostalgia’s reader is on sure footing. While Hayes continues to struggle with paranoia and a sense of unreality, the hospital narrative and Whitman’s guiding presence form a strong central thread. And when at last we learn what happened to Hayes during three days in 1864’s Battle of the Wilderness, McFarland summons all the powers of his artistry and imagination — with stunning results.

In the book’s acknowledgments, the author notes that those three days are believed to have seen nearly 30,000 casualties. How can one imagine such an inferno, or how it feels to survive it? Suffice it to say that this bravura sequence holds both beauty and horrors. It erases the distance between Hayes and the reader, plunging us into a surreal world where nothing is linear, nor solid.

To survive the chaos of engagement, we read, Hayes adopts “the pared mechanism of the warrior.” Or, as McFarland describes his transformation in another memorable passage:

Something deep within him had gone numb, and then, for a moment or two, he lost touch with all the certainties, small and large, that made him known to himself. It was a kind of blankness, for sure, the result of obliterative noise, but not entirely without character: nothing in the world mattered, nothing in life possessed any value, and all human endeavor was as foul and menacing as the scavenging of wild pigs in the street.

In a world where soldiers can be cheerfully grousing companions one instant and unrecognizable corpses the next, it’s no wonder that Hayes loses his grasp of language, logic and the stories we tell ourselves about why things matter. “Getting over it” isn’t an option for him. Gradual healing, it turns out, may be.

The passage above is indicative of McFarland’s prose in general: It has the formality and measured cadence we associate with the 19th century but lacks the baroque, pseudo-Shakespearean flourishes with which many modern writers evoke the period. The narration calls no undue attention to itself and the dialogue is terse and natural — with exceptions made for Whitman’s plainspoken eloquence. It’s the poet who comes closest to giving the novel a “message,” as he laments the costs of war or tells Hayes, “Your wounds are not visible like other wounds … Which isn’t quite the same thing as not real.”

Nostalgia is no sweeping war epic. Hayes’ story is a deeply personal, even idiosyncratic one, and is stronger for that tight focus. The novel may be an effort to understand the “invisible wounds” of current conflicts by transporting their symptoms to a war long past. But McFarland has studiously refrained from imposing a modern, therapy-speak sensibility on 1864. Hayes’ unhinged perceptions and Whitman’s steadfast belief in his inner resilience appeal to our empathy regardless of our stance on the current conventional wisdom about trauma. By the novel’s end, the young soldier has taken his place among the great characters of historical fiction: those who compel us to believe in their resonance, if not their reality.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Apocalypse Then"