In Devil’s Dream, Madison Smartt Bell takes on the massive task of making the Civil War live again in a non-clichéd manner. He never wholly pulls the task off, but he comes close enough that readers with a fondness for the era may find something to enjoy in the tale. The novel’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness, ultimately, as Bell finds a new way to tell a story about the era and its largest looming figures, but never completely pulls off the stylistic conceit.
Dream is an attempt to portray the life of famed Southern general Nathan Bedford Forrest through a series of vignettes that Bell hopes will add up to a full portrayal of the man. Oddly, Bell chooses to scatter these vignettes seemingly at random, creating a taxing maze through the complete history of the man’s life. Bell has a design in mind, but by the time he makes it all clear in the novel’s final quarter, he’s chased its own tail so far over the historical landscape that the reason for the time-twisting doesn’t prompt a desire for a reread so much as an exasperated cry of “Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
Fortunately, all those vignettes are executed with an almost hyper-realistic attention to detail and a vivid sense of what it must have been like to be alive during the tortured mid-period of the United States’ 19th century. Bell also gradually paints a picture of Forrest’s relationships with his slaves and the other African-Americans around him, including a vaguely omniscient mystery man named Henri who serves as point-of-view character for much of the narrative. The portions of the novel dealing with Henri’s unique gifts, or the central contradictions at the heart of how Forrest treats his slaves, are the book’s strongest sections.
But regrettably, too much of the novel’s plotting is so elliptical that it never pulls off what Bell is clearly going for: the sense of all of time rushing over the reader. (Indeed, Henri, who seemingly experiences all time as if it were one moment, essentially makes this point concrete in several of his inner monologues, ruining some of the mystery Bell aims to create.)
Bell employs Henri’s gifts well enough to use common knowledge of how the Civil War ends against his readers—since Forrest can never “win” the war, it makes him easier to examine as a curiosity. But the central timeline becomes a confused jumble of events that bump up against each other without a clear narrative or thematic throughline. Devil’s Dream contains marvelous images and moments, particularly when Bell evokes the eeriness of the 19th-century South, but the overall effect is that of being swept away by a tide and out to sea, struggling all the way.