Stuck with a wife he doesn't like, a job he hates, and a rapidly crumbling sense of self-worth, Dock Bass could use some good news.
So when he learns that he's inherited an ancient house from a deceased relative he never knew existed, he is ready to make a move. Even better, the old place turns out to be a treasure trove of Civil War memorabilia. But as the onslaught of collectors, history buffs, and media hounds - including an easy-on-the-eyes television reporter - descends, Dock needs every stubborn and independent bone in his body to fight of the hustlers, opportunists, and scam artists.
We are a country of serious novelists, just ask any of us. In some ways, it’s not a surprise that we haven’t produced a Richard Russo, a Pete Dexter or an Anne Tyler: Who can get a grant or a prize for the kind of book that is, above all, fun to read? But I bet while your local book club is masticating its latest Worthy Tome over its rugaleh, most of its members are cuddling up at home with books such as Empire Falls, The Paperboy or A Patchwork Planet. Although now if they want to buy Canadian, there’s an option: Brad Smith.
Busted Flush is Smith’s third novel, and it’s one that hits on some of our most cherished literary themes – history and personal identity – but not our own history and identity, as it turns out. Busted Flush takes place in Gettysburg, Pa., and it’s mostly about the Antiques Roadshow-ification of America and how history has turned into a hatful of cash.
The novel begins in Cooper’s Falls, where Dock Bass is leaving his wife. An opportunity to change his life has presented itself in the form of an inheritance: He’s the sole living relation of a man whose estate consists of 25 unfarmable acres and a rundown house built up against a rock face. But it’s good enough to give Bass some escape velocity, and he heads off to Gettysburg.
He settles in and begins to refurbish the old place. He finds solace in tearing it down to its elegant, solid, pre-Civil War foundation, but in stripping away the drywall and lathe, he discovers a doorway in the rock face. Behind it, there’s a shrine to a dead inventor, a man named Willy Burns, who died after joining the Union army in a fit of patriotic fervour brought on by the Gettysburg Address.
What’s in the room is enough to make an antiques dealer fall to his knees and weep. Bass finds more than 200 photographic plates from before 1864, a whole pile of which are of Lincoln giving the Address. But even more impressive is the rare phonautograph, a pre-Edison device for recording sound in an era where there was no technology to play it back. Now that there is, it turns out that a cylinder on the machine may actually be a recording of Lincoln himself delivering his famous speech.
Bass’s discovery brings him more attention than he can bear, and, taciturn and cynical by nature, he can bear precious little. The trove brings out the best and worst of the town. The best is in the academic community, where Harris Jamison and Klaus Gabor bring Bass their good guidance, and worst is the town’s foremost relics fraud (a broadly drawn gay man named Thaddeus St. John) and his muscle, Stonewall Martin. Add to this a highly acquisitive television mogul who sends his prettiest on-air personality to somehow secure the purchase of the phonautograph, and Busted Flush is fairly busting with what I’m sure every review of this book will call “colour.”
Smith is obviously in his element here. The dialogue is smart and funny, and although there is a certain repetitive quality to the characters and their relationships, you sort of expect in a book like this that deep psychological revelation might take a back seat to a ripping good yarn. That Smith delves in a serious way into the way the United States puts its history to use is an added level of pleasure to a book that is mostly, gasp, a ball to read.
And the writing itself? A novel that uses the phrases “a mug’s game,” and “the whole ball of wax” before page five is putting you on alert and you adjust your expectations accordingly. One test of good writing is whether it serves its story, and Brad Smith’s does. His descriptive powers are formidable: Readers with little understanding of how a house is built will likely to be able to rewire their living rooms after reading Busted Flush. And Smith’s appreciation for the details of Bass’s find – his loving depictions of a roomful of relics – is profound. I loved the sense the novel gave me of inanimate objects, their uses obscured by the passage of time, being brought back to life by the care and curiosity of a few individuals.
There are some broad strokes in this novel that don’t serve it terribly well. The florid gay antiques dealer is a character played for laughs whose nasty avarice has an unpleasant Shylockian quality to it. And the reporter sent to secure the phonautograph is a black woman whom the author has to keep reminding you is black. From a thematic perspective, I get why Smith decided she had to be an African American: It’s a fine idea – she’s sent to finagle from a white man an important artifact concerning the Great Emancipator. Unfortunately, even being a white dude myself, I didn’t buy Amy Morris’s blackness. There was a significant amount of external detail confirming it, and yet I couldn’t get away from the thought that it was only a fine authorial idea.
It’s the only aspect of the novel that felt literary in a conscious way, and oddly enough , that’s where this otherwise hugely enjoyable book falls down.
It’s no secret that the real religion of America is the religion of America. The town of Gettysburg, the setting for Brad Smith’s new novel Busted Flush, is one of the sacred sites of this religion, presided over by the great saint of American history, Abraham Lincoln.
But the religious sites of America, like the great shrines of the saints in the Middle Ages, draw more than just devoted pilgrims. Shysters also abound. In the Middle Ages they sold bogus relics of the saints; in 20th century Gettysburg they deal in high-priced Civil War memorabilia. One such dealer, an old fraud named Thaddeus St. John, and his stooge, a hulking brute appropriately named Stonewall Martin, are the two principal villains of Smith’s novel.
Smith, who lives in Dunnville, Ont., is making a name for himself as the author of books that can be fairly called genre novels. They are plot driven and reliably observe certain formulae of action and character. The question is, what genre? They are crime novels, of a sort, but not murder mysteries or thrillers. From the evidence of a previous Smith novel I reviewed, One-Eyed Jacks, set in 1959, and this one, set in the present, I would say they are disguised westerns.
One tip-off is that the hero of One-Eyed Jacks and the hero of Busted Flush both yearn for the equivalent of the old homestead. Tommy Cochrane in One-Eyed Jacks tries to reclaim his grandfather’s old farm in southern Ontario, while Busted’s Dock Bass tries to hold on to a defunct farm in Gettysburg that belonged to his forebears. In western fashion, both heroes are basically loners. Cochrane has a sidekick, but Bass is friendless when he rides into Gettysburg to take over his inheritance. Both are men without women, Bass having just unceremoniously split from his wife in upstate New York.
It was for the sake of this wife that Bass quit carpentry and became a real estate agent, thereby forfeiting his innocence. (His boss lied to prospective customers and built shoddy homes.) Like any western hero, Bass cannot live with such corruption.
(In an essay on the westerner, the late American critic Robert Warshow observed, “What he defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image – in fact his honour. He fights not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is, and he must live in a world which permits that statement.”)
There you have Dock Bass, to a T.
But what world will permit Bass to state what he is? Not the Gettysburg of 2005. But the Gettysburg of 1863? That’s another matter. As he begins renovating the dilapidated old farmhouse, he discovers a hidden storeroom filled with 19th century artifacts.
“A few weeks ago I took a hammer and chisel and I knocked this doorway open,” Bass says to a television correspondent named Amy Morris, referring to the storeroom. “And when I did, I found this … pocket from 1863. This might be a little too corny for a woman like you, but there was something very pure about it. It was … pristine in a way.”
That’s all very nice. Meanwhile, however, there’s the real world to deal with, and it is not pristine. “It’s the way of the world, Mr. Bass,” Morris tells him when he complains about some mercenary dealings.
“Your world,” he shoots back. She replies: “You think you get to exclude yourself just because you’ve got an attitude? It’s not that easy.” The novel tends to agree with her. The crux of Bass’s defence of his honour is simple honesty, a theme that reverberates throughout the novel. As in westerns, so in this novel. The accusation of being a liar is a flash point, provoking men to narrow their eyes and, symbolically speaking, reach for their guns. Gettysburg of 2005 is not Dodge City, but in some respects it might as well be.
“I’m just so sick of you lying sons of bitches,” Bass tells a Gettysburg real estate agent (the vocation does not come off well in the novel). “Watch what you’re calling me, boy,” the agent replies, and you can hear the scrape of chairs in the saloon and the sudden hush. But there is no showdown. “You’ll let me call you a liar because you are a liar,” Bass says, and of course he’s right. The real estate agent has to swallow the insult. (This is why Abe Lincoln is such a saint in this novel – he’s a politician who never, we are assured, told fibs.)
The plot development that sets all in motion – the equivalent of the disputed water rights or grazing range in the undisguised western – is a hoard of fantastically valuable Lincoln items, including photographs of Lincoln at Gettysburg and a possible recording of Lincoln delivering the address, that Bass discovers in that old storeroom. (The recording seems far-fetched, but Smith gives a convincing historical rationale for it.) As soon as the news breaks, Thaddeus St. John and Stonewall scheme to wrest the loot from him.
In the spirit of Warshow’s description of the western hero, Bass fights these men not so much to keep the loot, but to maintain his manly honour. I do mean manly. One of the signs of Bass’s integrity is his attachment to physical labour. He spends most of the time sawing and hammering away at the old farmhouse. The television star, Amy Morris, manages finally to win Bass’s favour when she demonstrates she knows how to do electrical wiring, like the western heroine who impresses by showing she can ride the range without falling off a horse.
By contrast, Smith mentions that Thaddeus “never actually lifted a hammer,” when his house was being renovated. But then Thaddeus is also a frightful old pansy, who wears lipstick and eyeliner when interviewed on television. Other inadequate men in the novel are signalled by their physical shortcomings – an obnoxious deputy sheriff has “skinny shoulders” and a hapless lawyer is short and fat.
There is one striking aspect, however, which departs from the western tradition in favour of private eye conventions – the tendency of the hero to mouth off. Smith gives his hero, and other sympathetic characters, an inexhaustible ironic wit. His hero is very similar to the heroes of novelist Richard Russo, who also face severe threats to their beleaguered masculine integrity with a ready supply of quips. Russo does it somewhat better than Smith, but Russo has the advantage of being more deeply interested in character and emotional complexity.
In Busted Flush, as in One-Eyed Jacks, Smith tends to rely on stock types. It’s part of the genre package, after all. What he does much better in this novel is make his villains, the lifeblood of genre fiction, much more compelling in their arrogance and greed. His plot also follows a classic formula of piling one setback after another upon the hero – until the reversal, completed virtually on the last page. It is very effective.
The ending also involves a deeper irony connected to the theme of honesty, which gives the reader something to think about. The result is a tight, lively package, assembled with conviction and genuine suspense and few false notes.