Beyond Capitol Avenue
A long time ago, Adam Braver lived in Midtown and played in local bands. Now, he lives in North Carolina, and he’s written a collection of stories about a legendary American president.
Homecomings can be strange things.
In one moment, you’re a young person living in Midtown Sacramento, playing music in local clubs and trying to figure out what trajectory your life will take.
In another moment, years later, you’re an emerging author on the cusp of turning 40 who lives on the other side of the country. Your first novel, Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, a collection of 12 thematically related short stories and a 92-page novella, has just been published by William Morrow through HarperCollins. Your book has been picked up for promotion by Barnes & Noble, as part of its “Discover Great New Writers” series, and by Borders, for its “Original Voices” series.
And now, you’re on the road, promoting your book the way rock bands promote a new record, by showing up in stores and on radio talk shows, including one hosted by former congressman Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan. And it says on your itinerary that you will be coming through your old stamping grounds.
Adam Braver lived in Midtown, on Capitol Avenue near 24th Street, much of the 1980s. During much of that time, he was in a couple of bands—the Rude Mechanicals and the Addams Family. The latter was a side project of Mike Urbano, the well-known, formerly local rock drummer who, at the time, was playing with the fashionably poppy group Bourgeois-Tagg; and Curtis Hillier, who was in a popular 1980s group called the Features.
“We used to play [Lord] Beaverbrook’s, Spanky’s and Fat Fonzie’s. Those names sound ridiculous now,” Braver recalled, laughing, over the phone from Durham, N.C., where he lives with his wife and child. “I remember we played out at the Rock Factory once with Bourgeois-Tagg, and they paid us not to play the next night. He said, ‘I don’t like punk rock in my club.’ He was one of those guys who thought that anything he didn’t know was punk rock. I mean, he probably thought Men at Work was punk rock.”
Braver, originally from Berkeley, moved to Sacramento with his family around the onset of his adolescence. He grew up around Land Park, went to Country Day School, lived in Midtown from 1983 until 1989 and then relocated to San Francisco, where he bummed around and worked in restaurants—bartending, mostly. “Pretty much leaving Sacramento was my main objective at that point,” he said, waiting a beat before adding that “it was the objective of a lot of people at that point.”
That’s where Braver lived, off and on, until mid-2001, when he moved to North Carolina. Though his ongoing education prompted frequent relocations, most recently to the Northeast, he maintained a San Francisco address. “I went to about eight colleges before I graduated,” he said. “I was one of those kinds of people.” Braver eventually graduated from Norwich University and earned a master’s in fine arts from Goddard College; both schools are located in Vermont. “I’d get gung-ho to go back to school, take a few classes and then think that I didn’t like school anymore, so I’d stop. Then, I’d get sick of what my future looked like, so I’d go back to school. I just went through sort of a round robin until I finally had enough discipline to finish it off. And then when I got to graduate school, of course, I was focused on exactly what I wanted to do, so it didn’t seem like such a drag or a headache.”
One point of that focus was on writing short stories, specifically examining Abraham Lincoln, or the popularly held idea of him. “The real thing I was interested in, even more than Lincoln,” Braver said, “was this idea of celebrity and this mythology of celebrity. And that’s really what started this whole thing. And I chose Lincoln—I wanted to write about several different people—and I started off with Lincoln, mostly because I had some interest in him as a kid, so I was always a little bit fascinated by him.”
Braver wrote a few stories, which form the early chapters in Mr. Lincoln’s Wars. “I worked on them as a side project,” he said, “and pretty much put them in a drawer for a couple of years.”
Invited by literary journal the Cimarron Review to submit something, Braver went to his drawer and pulled them out. “They were the only thing I had,” he said.
They were enough, or at least they whipped up enough interest in Braver for William Morrow to offer him a book deal.
Of course, it always helps to have decent subject matter, which even the final year of Lincoln’s life amply provided. “His son had died recently. The war was raging,” Braver said. “There were a lot of articles, when I first started working on this, about his depression and the cause of his depression, and his wife being justifiably on the edge. And he just seemed like this perfect person to do this character study of, in terms of celebrity—of someone who is perceived by other people as being great and flawless and everything else, and at the same time is fighting all these internal, personal battles.”
It also worked in Braver’s favor that he had the cojones to tackle a life that has been dissected by numerous historians and also examined in a superb biographical novel by Gore Vidal. By approaching his subject matter for the most part obliquely, through the eyes and experiences of other people, Braver was able to make it work. “I wanted to find those moments where those different worlds all collided, and how people thought of him,” Braver said. “And this whole idea of creating celebrities is what started me off on this. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to look at it from different people’s perspectives—in the same way that people make so many decisions in their lives based on popular and cultural icons, without ever thinking of them as flesh-and-blood people.”
Mr. Lincoln’s Wars opens with Mary Todd Lincoln, distraught over the death of her young son Willie, as she interacts with the president and his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. In the next chapter, a mortician’s assistant named Seth Jackson encounters Abraham Lincoln on the streets of Washington. After Jackson offers the president his condolences and drops hints that he worked on laying out Willie’s body for the funeral, Lincoln presses him for details. He wants to know everything. He’s been paralyzed by insomnia, walking the floor every night.
“Seventeen hundred steps last night,” Lincoln tells the assistant. “See, the thing is, Mr. Jackson, every step seems to count for an isolated frame of Willie’s life.”
An isolated frame is a reference to motion pictures, which were still a ways from being invented in the 1860s. In the next chapter, when an angry commanding officer named Zack Hargrove calls recruits “milquetoasts,” a term coined by a 1920s cartoonist, the reader realizes that Braver isn’t so much concerned with precise historical accuracy as he is in telling stories with a deliberate contemporary feel.
“I purposefully wrote things … I wanted to write the book in a very contemporary voice,” he said, “partly because that’s my writing sensibility. But also, I thought that if it was a voice that was familiar—not only just the words, but the tone, the rhythms of the sentences—it would locate a reader much more quickly. People would identify with the characters in a much easier way, instead of having that wall that history very often gives us in removing you into another time.”
Braver claims there are several very clear anachronisms in his book. “Some of them I left in,” he said, “because I thought that it identified the characters. But I did try to keep out things that were just jargon or vernacular; I didn’t want to have somebody say, ‘How’s it going?’ or ‘What’s up?’ or ‘What’s happening?’—things like that. But I wanted people to think that this was a contemporary thought and conversation.”
And there is historical precedent. “Shakespearean plays were written in the contemporary voice of Elizabethan times,” Braver pointed out. “When he was writing about Caesar, he was writing as if Caesar was an Elizabethan in the 1600s. Or even Renaissance art—when they would paint biblical scenes, they painted them through their own contemporary world. I think, to some degree, that has its own history of being normal; we just are used to, when you hear something from the Civil War, they have everybody talking like very formal Civil War-era letters.”
As soon as a reader who is hung up on historical accuracy can make that mental shift, Braver’s prose comes alive with haunting effectiveness. An older brother enlists in the Union Army to escape his dreary family life, which includes a retarded younger brother. A grief-stricken Mary Todd Lincoln haunts a hospital ward full of injured soldiers. A young war widow seduces the man who brings the news that her sadistic husband has been killed. A New York sanitarium patient whose son was killed in the war ventures out to meet Lincoln in Central Park at a speech—and succeeds. Lincoln ventures onto a battlefield and holds a wounded soldier’s hand while his leg is amputated. A well-born Chicago soldier has sloppy, drunken sex with a big-bottomed, big-mouthed Southern girl. A drunk has a premonition of Lincoln’s death and staggers to the Executive Mansion with a one-eyed buddy to warn the president. In the book’s longest section, the simmering rage of failed thespian John Wilkes Booth is set off by an altercation with a newspaper theater critic in a saloon, Lincoln’s body undergoes an autopsy, and Booth escapes to Virginia before getting run to ground.
And, in the final chapter, Lincoln is back in Springfield, Ill., at the beginning of his career in politics, sharing a happy moment with his wife. He has come full circle, just as the man who wrote about him is reconnecting one of his old circles.
Across Fair Oaks Boulevard from the Borders where Braver will read on Friday, February 21, is a restaurant called Paragary’s Bar & Oven. Back in the 1980s, when the site where Borders sits was an empty field, Paragary’s was known as Lord Beaverbrook’s, and a previous incarnation of Braver played music there.