McCampbell’s War by Robert Herring

The Tennessean, April 27, 1986, page 11-F

McCAMPBELL’S WAR. By Robert Herring. Viking, $l6.95.

MTSU novelist captures nature
Robert Herring sets tale in mountains he knows so well

Reviewed by JOHN BETHUNE

Along the Tennessee-North Carolina border they range and fall away shoulder to shoulder like great woolly bison, their bowed and humped backs heavy with Frazer fir, red spruce, and from a distance only barely visible, lost in the cool high winds and wide northeastern sky like a faded photograph.

Their names are wonderful and magical: the Boulevard, a windswept granite walkway atop a sheer corridor a mile high and never more than 20 yards wide; the Sawteeth, a ragged series of closely grouped peaks, treeless and serrated like an old bucksaw; Laurel Top, 5,500 feet in altitude and from whose summit nothing is visible because there is no point of overlook in its unbroken green-and-yellow world of birch and Canada hemlock; Huggins Hell, a lofty gorge into the depths of which the sun never shines and down which the Styx Branch plummets like an aggrieved soul; Bull Head, Eagle Rocks, Scratch Britches, Inadu Knob, Anakeesta Ridge, the Sugarlands and others, names from some forgotten ledger, some long-lost word-book of enchantment.

With these first words of McCampbell’s War, Murfreesboro writer and Middle Tennessee State University professor Robert Herring establishes that his subject will be in equal parts names and mountains, language and nature.
The subject is massive, and this novel, Herring’s second, is correspondingly ambitious.

McCampbell’s War falls short of its ambitions, and yet it is a novel that you find yourself mulling over in the middle of the night.

Despite its faults, McCampbell’s War is impressive in the magnitude of its intent.

As in Herring’s first novel, Hub (1981), the central characters here are an old man, a young boy and a demented but determined villain. After five months in a hospital, Proffitt McCampbell returns to his home in a secluded cove by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find a construction crew preparing to pave a new road over his ancestral cemetery.

The old man’s opposition mounts slowly, from verbal protest to sabotage to a virtual war, pitting himself against park rangers, police and his implacable enemy, Piper.

A one-time minister defrocked for a remarkably indiscreet dalliance, Piper nurses a grudge against McCampbell for having tracked him down during his days of poaching in the park. With McCampbell now battling the law himself, Piper gleefully reverses roles and methodically hunts down McCampbell.

Their confrontations unfold with a cinematic flair and intensity; the ending is compelling but perhaps too melodramatic.

Floating about during all these events is Juel, an innocent boy identified with Parsifal by a strange hermaphrodite and former English professor he encounters at a carnival. Thrown in with a depraved band of snotty kids, Juel must choose between their mentor, Piper, and the beneficent McCampbell.

That Herring’s novel needed a plot is a pity, for the energy and interest of the book are not in the dutiful doings of its characters but in its setting and language,

Even without the dustjacket blurb informing us that the author once worked as a guide in the Smokies, it would be obvious that he knows his territory intimately. Readers equipped with survey maps will be able to follow McCampbell’s every move, so accurately has Herring reproduced the setting

Herring’s novel is driven by his passion for the life of the mountains and his scorn for the forces of development and commercialism that are steadily destroying it. No one who has been appalled by the tawdry vulgarities of the unnamed but easily recognized tourist trap where Juel lives will fail to appreciate the author’s sentiments,

In writing his novel, Herring no doubt faced the artistic problem of finding a style appropriate to the wonder and magic he perceived in his subject. The drawn-out chains of clauses, the exotic metaphors and the esoteric vocabulary all contribute to the misty and mystical atmosphere of the novel. But this stylistic brilliance is partially undone by the excesses of Herring’s language.

Herring is evidently a fervent naturalist with a bent for precision. While his knowledge is impressive, it weighs down his prose, lending it on occasion the pedantic tone of a textbook. When combined, as it often is, with the perfervid vocabulary of a Romantic poet, this mania for over-specification can yield slightly overripe prose.

The mysterious power of names is central to this book, but, as the author inadvertently demonstrates, names can at times obscure the very things they describe.

Though never bad, his prose is often irritating. At its best, however, it is both rich and strange and serves to defamiliarize a world to which we have grown too accustomed, then restore our sense of wonder.

So dominant are Herring’s language and vision that his people and plot are all but lost in a forest of words. Juel, even Piper, even McCampbell—who is ultimately too clever, too invulnerable to be credible—never quite come to life.

But the loss is understandable given the risks Herring has taken in writing this unusual and sometimes powerful novel.

John Bethune teaches English at the University of the South.

Robert Herring will autograph copies of McCampbell’s War from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday at Mills Bookstore in Hillsboro Village.