An existential journey along 'Pelican Road'

"Pelican Road" by Howard Bahr. MacAdam/Cage. 305 pages. $25.

Bottom line: A rich novel set within Southern railroad life.

The setup for Howard Bahr's fourth novel, "Pelican Road," reads like the high-concept plot of an action-adventure film: It's Christmas Eve 1940, and two locomotives are on a high-speed collision course down Pelican Road, the name given to the stretch of rail between Meridian, Miss., and New Orleans. One of the trains, the Silver Star, is filled with holiday passengers making their way from New Orleans to Atlanta. The other train is loaded down with mostly empty boxcars save for a few dozen hogs and a stowaway named Sweet Willie Wine.

Though the trains will inevitably meet in a dramatic crescendo, "Pelican Road" is less about action and more about interiority. The novel focuses on the broken lives of the World War I veterans who work the railroad and in turn relinquish their marriages, their families and even their own bodies so that time schedules may be met, freight may be delivered and passengers may engage in their own tenuous love affairs.

The novel shifts dramatically between nearly a dozen points of view, but the book is anchored by Artemus Kane, a brakeman on the Silver Star haunted by memories of trench warfare and a failed marriage. Artemus is a philosopher, a would-be savior made all the more attractive by his own human flaws. Some of the novel's most tender and revealing scenes occur between Artemus and his lover Anna Rose Dangerfield, the most fully realized female character in a novel necessarily dominated by males.

In its composition and execution, "Pelican Road" is a stunning tribute to late modernism. Bahr captures the desperation and longing for meaning that existed for so many veterans and artists between the world wars. The structure, tone and lyricism are reminiscent of such classics as Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier" and Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." The novel's art and intelligence are carried through in Bahr's careful consideration of the lasting impact of war on the sacrificial lives of noble and average men.

Bahr also examines another modernist theme: the heartless relationship between man and machinery. When rookie Bobby Necaise compares engineering a train to riding a horse, his boss Mister Dunn is quick to correct him, "If you're man enough or mean enough, you can force your will on a horse, but not on a steam engine. You cannot knock a locomotive in the head with a two-by-four and get its attention."

"Pelican Road" is an ambitious, impressive novel, from its epic cast of characters to its serious exploration of existential dilemmas. Nearly all the characters live in fear of their own mortality, waxing poetic about their inevitable demises and the role the railroad will play in their deaths. Artemus Kane is all too aware of the danger of this way of thinking, "a man absorbed in his own mortality forgets to look around him, and that is his death warrant." If, as novelist Don DeLillo has suggested, all plots move deathward, then "Pelican Road" is paved with casualties. There is so much foreboding and foreshadowing of a deadly catastrophe that when the final body count is tallied, the reader feels both catharsis and surrender.

Bahr, a college professor and resident of Jackson, Miss., worked for years as a brakeman and yard clerk on various railroads. His knowledge and expertise is evident in the smallest sensory details, from the nine fire-gilt buttons on the Southern Railway's standard-issue navy blue overcoat to the layers of soot that blacken the windows of the octagonal roundhouse. At times, the author might have limited some of the details in service to the pacing and development of the larger narrative, but the world of the railroad is vividly and memorably created.

Bahr is the author of three previous novels, "The Black Flower," "The Year of Jubilo" and "The Judas Field," all set during the Civil War. He is probably tired of being reminded that his excellent first novel, "The Black Flower," had the misfortune of being published in the shadow of Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain." He need not worry about his latest work being eclipsed. "Pelican Road" is a singular achievement, a rich and challenging novel that rewards its reader on every page.

> Amber Dermont is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Agnes Scott College.

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