The Disagreement - A Novel

The Disagreement is a novel in which the reader of military histories will find no combat, only the aftermath of combat. The setting is Virginia in the Civil War; the principal and his friends avoid military service; the narrator is impressed into medical duty in service to the war wounded at university; he befriends a wounded Union physician; he marries a displaced specimen of Texas gentry; he dreams of Princeton, Philadelphia, and access denied him by war.

For the reader with no interest in literature generally, The Disagreement can still serve as beach reading, as a handy pop culture substitute that demands little while managing to entertain. It is ingenious without being overbearing; the plot moves along nicely, the characters are interesting, and the resolution of the story is satisfying if a little oblique.

Author Nick Taylor, however, is apparently a deep reader of Virginia novelists James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow and if you know your Cabell and Glasgow this is a treat - an homage done not in either of their voices but in Taylor's own.

There are some stylistic overtones in Taylor, however. Starting The Disagreement, I felt the presence of Charles Brockden Brown. There is the Brownian voice of a strange, uptight narrator sharing with his anemic sister eight rooms on the third floor of an immense house. There is the mystery of his reclusive father and a fateful choice that blesses and curses the family in turns. We meet a maimed slave whose fate is negotiated daily and a cousin whose secret affair foretells an altogether different social and political disaster. This Brockdenia sets the mood for the first third of the book and enables the author to reprise the mood twice: once in midstream with a profoundly Brownian scene of confrontation between the sane narrator and his cousin (who has yielded to political dementia); again, at the climax in a second brief "Gothic mood of emotional and psychological extremity."

(Speaking of Gothic, why does Taylor have to look like Brown?)

I am a little rusty in my James Branch Cabell (it's been almost 40 years since the boomlet that revived him) but it would be hard to miss the narrator's instructor, a physician named Cabell, (James Branch's father was one) who mouths a quote about Cabell rhyming with rabble - something Cabell the novelist used to say. (You might think Taylor was beating readers over the head with the obvious but a quick glance at the obtuseness of his reviewers tells us he needs a bigger stick.)

There is also the figure of the narrator's roommate "B.B." - a fellow who actually organizes a jousting tournament among unenlisted students as a morale builder in support of the war effort. The humor in that is immensely Cabellian - shades of Poictesme! B.B. is the idealist who can't pull it off, a superb homage to Cabell's many characters who "must be appreciated incident-by-incident." The narrator, being quite the stiff and the dominant voice, tends to muffle this flavor of irony ... but old Cabell fans will see the fun crackling through.

The Glaswegian element in Disagreement is not stylistsic (I think her style oafish) but rather thematic. To quote the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Glasgow built up, novel-by-novel "a social history of her native Virginia. The great organizing ideas of her fiction are the conflicts between tradition and change, matter and spirit, the individual and society." This reads banally but contains the essence of Disagreement: intergenerational strife, a longing to abandon Virginia, to affirm Virginia, to search abroad for a mythical fulfillment (here we converge again with Cabell). Ellen Glasgow was anti-sentimental - as Taylor is here.

The epilogue features a surprise appearance by the Schuylkill River, thus offering a final nod to Charles Brockden Brown in an anticlimax that is utterly Glaswegian.

In the advance reader's copy I received there are two military mistakes. Ignore them. They may have been caught before publication anyway.

We have here a novel of great literary merit and it appears in a Civil War setting. Take a chance on it. A truly great reader has become a great writer with this his first novel.

Top down: Taylor, Brown, Cabell, Glasgow.