When you have a drink with Charles McNair, you’re likely to learn the family history of your waitress. “Tell me about your kin,” is a favorite refrain. He’s an inquisitive soul, as eager to hear your stories as he is to tell his own. And he’s got another good one.
His own Scotch-Irish kin come from Alabama—he’s got a tattoo of a banjo on his knee in case anyone might need proof. He grew up in the town of Dothan in the 1960s, a time and a place where prejudice was ingrained. “Lots of us got programmed early with bad code, flawed social DNA,” he recently wrote in an essay for The Bitter Southerner on coming to terms with the racism around him after the Birmingham church bombing in 1963.
His new novel, Pickett’s Charge, takes place in his home state during a pair of its most tumultuous decades—the 1860s and 1960s. Threadgill Pickett is the last living Confederate soldier who learns that the last Union soldier is up in Maine. There’s only one thing for him to do: take his revenge.
Of course, that presents a few challenges for a 114-year-old man in a nursing home. But Pickett is bullheaded enough to try anyway. McNair, who’s served as Paste‘s Books Editor since 2005, alternates between the trauma and aftereffects of our Civil War and the fantastical events of Pickett’s final journey. With his whip-smart humor, vivid imagination, and knack for storytelling, it’s an important entry into the Southern Literary Canon. And it’s been a long time coming.
After attending The University of Alabama for several years (mostly taking writing classes and ignoring the required curriculum), McNair found himself playing a season of semi-pro baseball in Italy. He was on his honeymoon in Verona when a local umpire offered him a job in a furniture shop and a place on the team. He and his wife extended their stay through the 1979 season before returning to Alabama where he finished his degree and continued his unusual run of employment: working at a jeweler’s bench, teaching English to Saudi Arabian oil workers, writing for a weekly in Mobile and taking a corporate job with BellSouth, which eventually took him to Atlanta.
It was there that he wrote his first book, Land O’ Goshen, a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age tale that was two parts Flannery O’Connor, one part Stephen King and a whole heaping lump of his own unique voice. St. Martins Press published the book in 1994 and to his surprise, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Literature. “I don’t know if anybody really expects that to happen especially for a little literary novel,” he says. “And the guys that worked with me took a bowling trophy, took the plate off the top, and put ‘Pulitzer Prize’ and gave it to me at work.”
He quickly realized that there was only so much that a publishing house could do to spread the word about his novel, so he drove 18,000 miles over the next two years, from book event to writer’s conference, “cooking up excuses to go here and there.”
But it would be another 19 years before his second book, Pickett’s Charge, would finally see light.
“My daughter was born the same year Land O’ Goshen was born, and every priority, every decision since was making a living rather than writing a book—which was, you know, an indulgence. And so that’s why it takes a long time. And plus maybe I’m just a slow writer.”
The first germinations for the new book predate even Land O’ Goshen, “probably [back to] the porch as boy, listening to my daddy talk about meeting a Confederate veteran in Troy, Alabama,” he says. “Now think about that: That war was only two lifetimes ago. My dad, my own father, stood and talked to a man who had been in the war, who had been shot at and shot at people. That is not very far in the past if you think about it. We’d always stop and look at the markers in the cemetery and see where one of my great-great uncles lay and the little CSA on the headstone and a heart meant he had been in the musical corps.
“Some of the porch tales, some of those yarns are what Southern families are obsessed by. Whether they’re true or not, does it matter? They’re true if you tell them right. We come from people who believe that if you stretch the truth, it kind of covers a lot more. So I think that’s where the gene with storytelling lies with me.”
That tradition of tall tales plays an important part in the magical realism of Pickett’s Charge. The book is filled with gargantuan crocodiles, rabid monkeys and a ghost from Threadgill’s past. “I always meant for [Threadgill] to be a very questionable narrator,” McNair says. “I mean, he’s 114. What are you going to believe? And all of this directly comes from Ken Kesey’s book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Chief Bromden is the six-foot-eight-inch deaf-mute Indian who is brooming out the place when the book opens. He really can see and hear and speak, but he’s in the insane asylum so you don’t know what he’s seeing. He’s the narrator. Chief Bromden describes [Nurse Ratched] ‘swelling up and bursting the buttons off her blouse and telescoping out her arms’—an absolute hallucination—but also just a pure description of this fierce, powerful woman so that he gets away with it. And that’s what I meant for Threadgill to be able to do in the story. I was so proud that one of the blurbists [on the cover of Pickett’s Charge] actually nailed that whole concept. Tom Junod said, ‘He’s taken the tall tale and done it one more.’ And that is exactly what I meant to do. Like Land O’ Goshen, which used the Bible as a predicate and the story of the Old Testament—Adam and Eve and all that—and we just tell this outlandish embellishment on that story to make it entertainment.”
The fantastical is never more at the fore than in the interstitial chapters, which follow Alabama’s state bird, the yellowhammer, as it flies northward towards Threadgill’s intended victim. “I’m prone to these poetic indulgences and can be florid at times,” he says, “but I thought okay, if I’m going to be that way, how can I figure out a way to make it work in the story and do these little skylark moments. I wanted chapters with brevity, four-to-five pages so that they’re convenient reads, so that people could get up and leave. I found that I was able to do that in the beginning chapters but then as the book went along and chapters grew longer and denser and more complex, I thought God, I need to break these things up at some point. So I thought why not these little lyrical flights in-between that would be spaces. So they were created purely as interstitials and it just so happened that they hit on the ideas that I was writing about, this metaphor for the bird the spirit making it all the way to Maine. I don’t want to give away anything in the book but it’s obvious that he doesn’t make it to Maine. In fact, he doesn’t even get out of Alabama. He’s within sight of the next state; he just can never get there, which seems to me to be the kind of the way people in the South have made themselves. They’ve clung doggedly to their defeat instead of forgiving, instead of moving on. And it took 100 years. And yeah they were disfigured, yeah they were ruined, and yeah they were sad. Still a century is a long time.”
While just getting his second novel published was a difficult journey that included the death of his literary agent, the timing is pretty notable; 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge—the final day of The Battle of Gettysburg. And, he says, he’s already working on his third novel. “I have 300 pages of a new book,” he says, “so I hope it won’t be 19 years till the next one. I think it’s a great idea not to wait and put all your eggs in a basket and to keep being a writer.”
You can purchase Pickett’s Charge at Amazon, or better yet, your local bookstore.