As a boy I took a summer class in archaeology at the California Academy of Sciences. On the first day they gave me a plastic tub filled with black dirt. I took a handful of my own things—a kazoo, a Handi-Snack, a Matchbox car—and buried them. For three months we learned about archaeology. On the last day I had to dig everything up and explain to the class what I found, as if the dirt had magically transformed my personal stash into something ancient and foreign and noteworthy.
If you have an old family Bible, you’ll want to stitch The Alligators of Abraham into the binding. It belongs in the Old Testament, somewhere around Isaiah. Never mind that it’s about the Civil War. It may seem odd, at first, to turn the page on a Hebrew prophet and come face to face with General Ulysses S. Grant. But Alligators is truly an Old Testament story, full of origin myths, strife, lamentations, and foreboding. “Before them there were no such alligators as they, and neither after them shall be such.” It will be the only book in your family Bible written in the second person.
Your father is an Army general renowned for his brutality. Your mother is an heiress who faints and weeps. “You’re heartless,” says a woman you sleep with, “but you’re also a coward.” From the blood-soaked prairies of the Indian Wars to the towering cities of the early television era, The Alligators of Abraham is the history of an America that you ought to know but do not recognize.
And government funded militias roamed the streets on horseback and in carriages, paying “visits” to “Abraham towns,” setting fire to tarpaulin tents and knocking over tin shacks with baseball bats, tying unpaid men to carriages and the sounds of those men screaming, the trail of their blood, their carcasses left for the rats and gulls, and how numerous militiamen fornicated forcibly with unpaid women in the back of carriages and behind general stores.
Robert Kloss drives his sentences forward in strict chronology and thunderous prose, sacrificing grammar—the above passage is syntactically dubious—for a steady accumulation of bizarre and horrific images. Most paragraphs begin with “And,” and he frequently asks you, the reader and protagonist, to remember things you cannot possibly know. “Remember the letters your mother wrote and folded over, slow and delicate, and how she tied these with pink and blue ribbons, and how she hid these in a split tree trunk outside your house.”
Mostly Kloss wants you to remember carnage. Bison slaughtered, boy soldiers maimed, women raped in dark alleys—he is gluttonous for this stuff. He lingers on a wounded officer, “the bones white and blood-blackened, punching out where his leg shattered.” The natural tendency of every living thing in the novel is to “thrash” and “gnash.”
And those women wrestled into ditches, their corsets gutted by bayonets, screaming in the light of their burning city, and those buildings burned and devastated into half-walls and heaps of brick and ashes, and the burned carcasses of horses in the streets and the cats that picked clean the ash-bones, and now babies and mothers, covered in dust, slept against the husks of buildings while soldiers marched the scorched and dusty road, while your father smoked his cigars and nodded ashes to the burned-out city streets.
Clearly this is not a lived experience. Kloss aims to condense the vivid savagery of an American generation into a few hundred pages of lyrical prose. The effect is overwhelming—an impossible fullness that teeters between epic history and stylistic overkill. When he describes “the musk of the cut-open earth” it’s clear he doesn’t know exactly what he means, but it sounds great nonetheless.
Historically the book is a greatest hits collection of the Lincoln presidency and Reconstruction. Lincoln hits the campaign trail by railroad, delivers his Gettysburg Address, catches a bullet at Ford’s Theatre. In the same way that “your father” is a stereotype (mad, violent, withdrawn) and “your mother” a cliché (wealthy, pampered, weak) the Lincoln of Alligators is the product of historical consensus, aligned symbolically with the railroad and other iconic inventions of his era. Stereotypes and clichés are supposed to be bad things, but Alligators uses them to good effect. The book’s competing, complementary impulses are to present a kind of recycled history and an ambitious literary style.
Those competing impulses pay off in two big ways. First is a richness of allegorical possibility. Lincoln’s stance toward slavery and war is, with little alteration, Obama’s stance toward illegal immigrants and the contemporary schisms of racism and jingoistic patriotism. Lincoln’s sainted departure from the earth is, very nearly, Jesus’ departure at the Ascension, with Reconstruction playing out like the Acts of the Apostles, and even a metropolitan Tower of Babel thrown in. By clinging to broad interpretations of history, Alligators offers itself as a sweeping new origin myth for America.
But Kloss really does know his history, which leads to the second payoff. The best metaphor I can think of is deglazing. I’m not sure I understand what deglazing is, but I think you splash wine into the pan in order to burn off the alcohol and bring forth the crusty giblets of the meat you’re cooking. Kloss uses facts like deglazing wine. He pours them over everything, but they burn off in the heat of his writing, and all that’s left are bits of historical truth that taste weirder than fiction. I assumed he had fictionalized the extent of Mary Todd Lincoln’s insanity, the outlandish rituals of embalming, and the surprisingly early invention of the lawnmower. But he simply removed all the trappings of fact and made them strange again. A man walks through the novel looking exactly like, and spouting the famous sayings of, Andrew Carnegie, but we never learn his name.
And the alligators. The most fictional element in the book, they swim upstream of everything else, blighting the land and wreaking havoc on an already ravaged nation.
He explained that alligators were invading cities, crashing general stores, slurping the syrup from peach tins. Jagged and blood-crusted they thrashed into butcher shops, devouring the best cuts of meat and the worst, the bone and the gristle, swallowing the head and the skin and the butcher’s knives as the butcher fended at them, and then the butcher’s bloody apron and the butcher’s bloody shoes. They hissed on the lawns and moaned in the coiled barbed-wire, barbs burrowing into their soft bellies the more they thrashed.
The alligators represent death and oblivion, things older and more inevitable than any human civilization. A great destabilizing force, they stand in opposition to your maniacal, military father and his “sacred task” of securing the young nation. Kloss uses alligators–they’re as good a choice as any–to push the unbelievable historical violence of the Civil War toward an even more unbelievable allegorical violence, as if to say the reality is too difficult to apprehend, so we need the gross exaggerations of art.
The great theme of The Alligators of Abraham is that American history is bloody and ignorant and irredeemable, and it moves on regardless. Not exactly an original idea, but I’ve never seen it presented so lyrically, forcefully, almost self-righteously. There is thunder and screaming in these pages.
Kloss seems to have buried his own political ideas and literary style in the black dirt of American history and dug them up again like they’re something old and authentic and momentous. It’s both a feat of literature and a feat of selective memory. The latter makes it utterly American.
And they changed the names of their children to “Abraham” although by then no one remembered his position or his accomplishments, knowing only that he had been a great and famous war hero.
– Brian Hurley