Alternate-history fiction is most exciting when it’s built on a premise that is shocking enough to unsettle generally accepted attitudes about the inevitable course of history, and yet totally plausible. So far as that goes, the new novel by Stephen L. Carter (The Emperor Of Ocean Park) is thrilling in its promise. In Carter’s telling, Abraham Lincoln survives being shot at Ford’s Theater, but his failure to become a martyr leaves him politically vulnerable amid the chaos that follows the end of the war. In Carter’s story, popular sympathy toward the injured president quickly evaporates, and he’s beset from all sides, targeted by those who despise him for waging war against the Confederacy and ending slavery, and also by those who feel he didn’t strike hard enough against the “peculiar institution” early on, and now see him as treating the humbled Southern states too gently.
It’s understandable that Carter shied away from making Lincoln the book’s central hero, given how forbidding a prospect it is to make a figure so misted in historical reverence breathe on the page. (It’s been done, though, in fiction such as Richard Slotkin’s Abe: A Novel Of The Young Lincoln and parts of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, as well as in such movies as John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln.) Still, his choice of a hero is a bit of a reach: Abigail Canner, a 21-year-old black woman and graduate of Oberlin College who has just arrived at the law firm representing Lincoln in his impeachment trial and is shocked, shocked, to discover that, in spite of the dazzling brilliance (and jaw-dropping beauty) that everyone instantly recognizes and remarks on within seconds of meeting her, the stodgy old farts in charge of the firm are in no hurry to invest her with important duties.
Abigail might remain relegated to the sidelines of history if not for a string of sinister incidents that begins with the murder of the President’s lawyer outside a “colored” brothel. While the politicians and newspapers concentrate on spinning every development in a way designed to flatter their own side and smear the opposition, Abigail and her colleague Jonathan Hilliman wade into the muck of a John Grisham-esque conspiracy, digging up clues, trying to decipher mysterious letters, and trying to figure out how it’s all connected to the impeachment crisis. They know they’re getting somewhere whenever a supporting character with a historical footnote huffs something like, “This is quite manifestly irregular.” Every so often, Abe himself, foxy as all bedamned, drops in just long enough to do his Hal Holbrook impression.
Weighing in at more than 500 pages and feeling twice as long, this is an endless, lifeless slog of a book, with the genuinely interesting questions about the legality of some of the measures Lincoln felt were necessary to hold the country together (such as his suspension of habeas corpus) overshadowed by the gaudy plot devices, which Carter himself seems to take no pleasure in foisting on his readers. One of the likeliest possible explanations for this book’s existence is that Carter wanted to inspire comparisons with the state of contemporary politics, and open up the debate about modern partisan warfare and the morality of how our presidents now wage war, something he chewed over at length in last year’s non-fiction meditation The Violence Of Peace. Only a writer with serious intentions could have so little fun with an idea like this.