David Stacton (1923-1968) is probably the best American novelist you’ve never heard of. At least I’d never heard of him till a couple of months back when the New York Review of Books republished his 1961 novel, The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth, and one of my book clubs read it.
I don’t think I’ve ever written the phrase “tour de force” in a blog post before, but it is the right term to describe this novel. Before opening this book, I had close to zero interest in Booth or Lincoln’s assassination, but now it’s one more topic on the long list of things I want to know more about. How does Stacton accomplish this?
Isaiah Berlin might have called Stacton a hedgehog among novelists; he does one big thing extraordinarily well. He is a master of the “free indirect style,” also known as “close third person,” in which the author assumes the point of view of a particular character while telling the action in the third person. As James Wood explains the technique in How Fiction Works: “On the one hand, the author wants to have his or her own words, wants to be the master of a personal style; on the other hand, narrative bends toward its characters and their habits of speech.”
Since Henry James popularized this way of telling a story, it has become predominant in the High Lit Tradition of fiction, but none of have attempted it so massively as Stacton, who brings his ventriloquist’s voice and wonderful eye for the telling detail to perhaps 20 characters over the course of this novel.
Here, for example, is John Wilkes Booth girding himself for his big moment the night Lincoln is shot. Note also the quick shifts into the bartender’s mind:
Booth was also watching the hands of a clock. Somehow this evening his habitual gestures did not satisfy him as they usually did. The bar was Taltavul’s. Of the two bars which flanked the theatre, this was the one he preferred, for the other got mostly actors, who did not pay him as much deference as workmen did.
Brandy was not quite what he needed now. He ordered a set up of whiskey and water instead. Taltavul thought that unusual and would remember it.
Booth had the eerie feeling that he was doing everything for the last time. He could not shake it. No doubt it was because an assassination, unlike a performance, is a unique act. It cannot be repeated.
There were too many drunks in the bar tonight. One of them lurched against him, lifted a glass and said, “You’ll never be the actor your father was.”
That jolted him. It was ages since he had thought of his father, that benevolent madman with the sagging calves and flopping belly. Junius Brutus the Elder may have played country squire like Farmer George, but it was he the Booths had to thank for their illegitimacy, hushed up though the matter was. One could only be a gentleman by forgetting all about him.
The thought of that firmed Booth’s purpose. “When I leave the stage, I will be the most famous man in America,” he said.
“Hell, for all you act on it, I thought you’d left it months ago,” said the drunk. “Croak something for us.”
Taltavul knew how to handle a drunk. He handled this one fast. But it was funny, come to think of it, but it was true, Booth had not acted for months. And what was all that blarney about leaving the stage, anyhow?
To his relief, Booth said nothing more, drained his glass and left the bar.
Stacton’s chameleon-like shifts in point of view and his skill at impersonating each character create a deep sense of psychological realism. Each character sees the world a kilter through his own solipsistic prism, just as in life. For John Wilkes Booth, this means a powerfully credible portrait of a vain, self-pitying, glory-hungry performer, wannabe gentleman, ladies’ charmer, and fantasist who expects to be acclaimed by the nation for his deed.
Since the novel closely follows the historical record of events, I knew what would happen before I began reading and yet Stacton managed to make me feel a terrific sense of suspense. The suspense was not along the conventional line – what will happen to Booth? But it was, What will Booth be thinking when the Union solders corner him in a barn; how will he rationalize his own death?
Stacton himself was an eccentric figure who wrote many historical novels and also pulp fiction under various noms de plume. While he once made a Time magazine list of promising novelists, most of his works stayed in the ghetto of the genre writer and he never came close to the kind of fame contemporaries like John Updike and Philip Roth enjoyed. He died at 44 in Denmark.
The book’s intelligent introduction by novelist John Crowley is well worth reading to learn more of Stacton and his writing, but I’d recommend it only after you finish the novel. The story is marvelous enough without the lagniappe of a mystery-man biography.