By Karen Joy Fowler
470 pages. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. $28.
“Why did you do it, Johnny? Nobody agrees.”
That’s a line from “Assassins,” the charismatically diabolical musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman about the malefactors who have tried (sometimes successfully) to kill American presidents. It is not the question that guides “Booth,” a historical novel by Karen Joy Fowler. What, then, is the project Fowler had in mind when composing an epic about the Booth family?
She explains in an author’s note at the end: “I did not want to write a book about John Wilkes. This is a man who craved attention and has gotten too much of it; I didn’t think he deserved mine.” The idea behind “Booth,” she goes on, was to reanimate the people who surrounded the assassin, transforming the family into autonomous fictional characters. “The tension over this issue — how to write the book without centering John Wilkes — is something I grappled with on nearly every page.”
If it sounds tedious to witness an author grapple with tension for 470 pages, that would be an accurate forecast of the reading experience. It’s impossible to summarize the plot of “Booth.” There’s far too much of it. The assassin isn’t born until Page 59, and his consciousness doesn’t take even faint shape until much later, when he proceeds through a checklist of villainous behaviors: torturing animals, playing with guns, assaulting people. Until April 1865, Booth’s life is a string of petty triumphs and medium-size failures. But again, that’s not the point of the book. The point is everyone else.
So who is “everyone else”? There are 10 Booth siblings in total, four of whom die young. Father is a famous actor, a drunk and a bully. Mother is a tragic blur. Three of the brothers, including John, go into the family business of acting. One of the sisters grows up to settle uneasily into spinsterhood; the other into marriage and motherhood, also uneasily. For hundreds of pages we follow the Booths as they rove from city to city, flourishing or failing, as people do.
There is nothing wrong with chronicling what people do and how they feel about it, of course. This is the terrain of novels. The problem is how Fowler goes about it, which is in prose that is alternately sleepy and mawkish. Here is a character pondering the alarming fate of his two missing children: “Change is hard.” Here is one of the Booth sisters, considering her impending marriage: “It’s time, she thinks. Time to grow up.” Here is that same sister, reflecting on her loneliness: “She’s long understood that no one will ever love her as much as she needs to be loved.”
More distracting than the emotional banalities are the verbal clichés: the hairs that “stand on end,”the chances that go “up in smoke,” the rugs that are beaten “within an inch of their lives.” Hands shake like leaves and pillows are drowned in tears. Sparks fly. Hearts race. All of this would be bad writing from a high school student. Coming from an author of Fowler’s achievements — she was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and received a PEN/Faulkner Award the same year — it feels more like malpractice.
More staleness: In one scene, a Booth sister sits on the branch of a cherry tree, picking ripe fruit, when a snake suddenly twists down the trunk with tongue protruding. We grasp the creaky metaphor before it appears on the page: “Even in the old familiar places, in places you know and love, in your very home, peril is hidden like a serpent in the leaves.”
Transitions are often information dumps. (“Now it’s 1846, another March coming round.” “1851 is a busy year for the Booth family.” “In 1856, when Edwin returns from California, Rosalie is 33 years old.”) There is a wearying proliferation of follicular description: One person has “a muddle of curls,” another “a messy head of curls,” a third “an abundance of curly hair,” and a fourth “fetching curls.”
Amid all this are tepid daubs of period detail: fluttering lace curtains, torn crinolines, crackling fires. These complaints would be nit-picking if they were exceptional rather than representative.
Chapters about Abraham Lincoln are spliced into the Booth family narrative. These deliver the insights that Lincoln is ambitious, prone to depression and misunderstood. Don DeLillo used a similar intercutting technique in “Libra,” his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. The effect in DeLillo’s novel was to electrify the narrative with a sense of convergence; here, the Lincoln sections merely and unnecessarily remind us that the man exists.
Back to the author’s note, for a second. Fowler writes that the idea for “Booth” originated during a series of grisly mass shootings in America. (One of many.) “Among other things, like other writers before me, I wondered about the families of the shooters — how would such a family deal with their own culpability, all the if-only’s?” And, more poignantly: “What happens to love when the person you love is a monster?” It is an eternally knotty question, but one that is stymied by the structure of the book. Only a sliver of it takes place after the assassination. Until then, the decentered (to borrow Fowler’s language) John Wilkes Booth is too lightly sketched to register as monstrous. And the ones who would love him — entombed as they are in trite conventions of thought and feeling — barely register at all.