Monday, August 1, 2011

Richard Liebmann-Smith mixes Jameses to make a great story.

A friend recommended this novel or I might not otherwise have picked it up. The premise is so bizarre that it needs an encouraging word to be taken seriously.

The James Boys

In The James Boys (261 pages, Random House, $25) Richard Liebmann-Smith reimagines William and Henry James’s younger brothers Wilky and Rob, both of whom fought in the Civil War, as Jesse and Frank James, the notorious outlaws. This gives Liebmann-Smith one family in which to run the gamut of nineteenth-century American masculinity, from the hyper-intellectual philosopher William and refined novelist Henry to the handsome, sexually aggressive and contemptuous Jesse James, and, according to Liebmann-Smith at least, his better read and more introverted brother Frank.

Given this premise, the novel proceeds from incident to incident with aplomb. Early in the action, the younger James brothers hold-up a train in which Henry is returning from an ill-conceived attempt to do a little journalism for American friends. On this trip, he meets the precocious Elena Hite, the daughter of a Harvard businessman, who has taken to the road to espouse the woman’s cause.

Just as Elena has started to embarrass the fastidious Henry with her directness of speech, Jesses James comes in to demand their money, but the recognition scene between the “bothers” leads the outlaws to drag the novelist and his companion off the train and onto their hideout.

While Henry and Elena pose as husband and wife, for the sake of the couple who run this retreat, Elena in fact becomes involved with Jesse, and Henry is scandalized when he sees them fooling around together behind the barn. Henry’s ailments, which threaten to get the best of him even in good times, flare up to the point that he is barely sociable.

While Henry struggles in the wild west, William is busy trying to set up the first psychology laboratory at Harvard. He has friends in high places, and he is sanguine of success; but at the same time he is trying to decide whether he should marry the woman he has been seeing. As he talks himself in and out of marriage, Henry and Elena appear in Cambridge after a botched bank robbery, and she finds him attractive as well.

In the course of telling this story, Liebmann-Smith weaves fact and fiction so seamlessly that a reader has no recourse but to give into it entirely. What he surely hopes—that the two sides of this narrative will illuminate each other in imaginative ways—is surely what happens here. But still some readers will want to go and read more about the outlaws; and others will want to reacquaint himself or herself with the details of the intellectual Jameses once again. Both results speak to the effectiveness of the novel, for only a deeply engaging novel could get readers to think about what “really happened” in this way.

I recommend this novel for anyone interested in nineteenth-century American culture. Once you open it, it is hard to put it down.

The James Boys is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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