The unthinkable has happened: the Newt Gingrich novel is really entertaining. Can this be? Is this not sheer madness? Have we “drunk” the kool-aid? Must we revoke our “literary” status for guiltily taking pleasure in THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER? Is it possible to keep reading, say, ULYSSES, when we’d really rather start the other Newt Gingrich novels?? Like GETTYSBURG, for instance? These are troubling questions for troubling times. It seems important to deconstruct the ingredients of this literary cocktail to understand how it has managed to intoxicate us so far.
Let’s start with the novel’s primary narrative: will the Yankees’ plan of tunneling under the Rebel fort, secretly placing dynamite under the Rebel fort, and then blowing up the fort succeed? That’s what’s at stake, essentially, in THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER. And this narrative is solidly established within the first hundred pages or so. You want the Yankees’ dastardly plan to work. And this is because General Meade doesn’t think it’s possible; oh, that ornery General Meade, who doesn’t like cigars, and thinks Lincoln’s not fit for command, and doesn’t like the loveable General Burnside for the disastrous results of Fredericksburg. And yet, because General Meade is such a bed-wetting sourpuss, and because we love General Burnside for his crazy sideburns, we are totally rooting for the tunnel & dynamite plan to work!
It seems like literary writers these days hate narrative. Why is that? Why do you hate narrative? “Mrs. Dalloway would buy the flowers herself.” That’s a perfect narrative. Will she buy the flowers, or won’t she? You can sort of pin the entire novel on that narrative; obviously there’s so much more at stake, and the subtextual narrative — “Mrs. Dalloway would either kill herself or not” — is so much more powerful, but it’s nevertheless a perfect literary narrative on the surface, as well, not unlike the narrative of THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER, that scratches the reader’s itch for some kind of understandable causality — let’s call it order — amidst the chaos of the pages / universe.
The weird thing is: if we knew what really happened in this battle, historically speaking, it would be hard to really care about this, or at least care about it as much. We’re on page 200, with 150 pages to go, and this is where we are in the story. It’s 3:00 a.m. in July of 1864, 30 miles south of Richmond. It appears the war is at a stalemate, until some plucky coal-miners from Pennsylvania (Union privates) come up with the excellent plan of tunneling under the Rebel trenches all the way to this massive fort a quarter mile up the hill. It’s basically the last thing stopping the Yankees from taking the road that leads to Richmond. Burnside is onboard with the plan, but Meade doesn’t like it. Grant lets Burnside go ahead with it, but Meade sure as hell isn’t happy about that. Lots of tension gets built up on either side, and now it’s the night of the battle! All the Yankee troops are lined up, ready to fight, but SOMETHING’S GOING WRONG WITH THE TUNNEL. Why hasn’t the dynamite gone off yet? What happens if the sun rises before the dynamite goes off, and the whole Rebel army can see the soldiers crouched behind the trenches ready to storm the blown-up fort? IT’LL BE A DISASTER!!!
We’re totally hooked. This isn’t sarcasm or irony; it’s surprise, and total detachment from the political circumstances surrounding this text. We’re able to remove ourselves from the Newtiness of this whole thing, and try to judge the text on its own merits (as per Eliot’s method of New Criticism). The result, inasmuch as we can tell so far, is a pot-boiling commercial thriller. We’re definitely not finished yet, and we haven’t started talking about the 24th Regiment (the black troops) and what sort of political messages the Newtster might be trying to send, but so far, we can’t help but raise this book’s grade from a C+ to a B+ with much excitement about how this thing will finish.