Booth

David Robertson, Author
David Robertson, Author Doubleday Books $23.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-385-48706-1
Reviewed on: 12/01/1997
Release date: 12/01/1997
Hardcover - 978-0-385-49082-5
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-0-553-47919-5
Paperback - 326 pages - 978-0-385-48707-8
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With its Civil War backdrop and its presentation (including period photographs) of a heinous crime involving real-life figures, Robertson's first novel brings to mind two other fiction debuts, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and Caleb Carr's The Alienist. The book doesn't match the literary sophistication of the former or the storytelling prowess of the latter, but it offers its own potent inducements, notably an immensely compelling subject--the plot to assassinate Lincoln--and a charismatic antihero, John Wilkes Booth. Less successful is the unwieldy structure erected by Robertson (Sly and Able, a biography of James F. Byrnes) to vivify Booth, largely through the eyes of James Surratt, the only alleged conspirator tried and found not guilty. Most of the narrative is flashback, framed by Surratt's account of his meetings in 1916 with D.W. Griffith, who wishes to exploit Surratt's story for commercial gain. The flashbacks themselves arise from Surratt's 1864-65 fictionalized diary (which lacks the spontaneity of true diary entries), from trial transcripts and, briefly, from Booth's fictionalized diary as he flees Union retribution. With all these elements, the narrative has a patchwork feel, but one sewn of deep-hued, velvety cloth. Robertson's portrayals--particularly of the naive Surratt and his love-starved mother (later hanged for conspiracy), and of the man who seduces them both, the mercurial, generous, egomaniacal Booth--bloom with nuance. His depictions of urban life and battlefield death at the time carry the impression of truth. Above all, the novel, despite its scribble-scrabble structure and mechanical plot ploys (the attention-getting frame; Surratt's encounter with Lincoln shortly before the killing) brilliantly capitalizes on the inexorability of historical fact; few readers will put it down as it surges toward the horror of April 14, 1865, and beyond. Major ad/promo; author tour. (Jan.)
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