A History of Violence

Clifford Jackman’s debut novel unpacks an American addiction

The greatest hero of pop culture, from The Last of the Mohicans to American Sniper, is the gunfighter. Whether he is an outlaw, a town marshal, a private eye, a gangster, a soldier or a James Bond secret agent—or even if the character is a Charlie’s Angels–style woman—he is a hawkeye gunhand.

Clifford Jackman’s enormously enjoyable debut novel tells the story of the Winter family, a travelling brotherhood of nihilist gunfighters, working both sides of every conflict, from the Civil War era to the closing of the American frontier. Augustus Winter is an amber-eyed, platinum-haired killer brutalized by war, a Clint Eastwood role if there ever was one. Quentin Ross is an ex-Union officer, the black sheep of a good Illinois family, a childhood bedwetter and compulsive liar given to quoting William Blake. Fred Jackson is a brutal ex-slave, Bill Bread an alcoholic Cherokee and the Empire brothers a pair of malicious, suspicious morons, Hells Angels on horseback. Together, they are soldiers of fortune exploited by generals and politicians to do their wet work and take the rap afterwards.

Clifford Jackman’s book is a rolling bloodbath, a gory amoral extravaganza that depicts American history from Sherman’s March through Georgia to Reconstruction in Mississippi, to a ballot-stuffing Chicago election and the Arizona genocide of the Plains Indians as a study in serial psychopathy.

Jackman, a 30-something lawyer living in Guelph, Ontario, has a real talent, rare among Canadian writers in any medium, for inventing breathless shoot-’em-up action sequences, and he never lets up on the blood spatter. His feeling for men and boys on the other side of the law has a resemblance to another lawyer-writer, the late George V. Higgins of The Friends of Eddie Coyle fame.

Yet despite Jackman’s fondness for pulpish elements, his story nearly edges into profundity. It is just these unacknowledged violent amoral energies, he suggests, that made both Manifest Destiny and today’s global American Empire possible.

With the exception of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, all The Winter Family’s antecedents are cinematic. Peckinpah, Tarantino, Sergio Leone—The Wild Bunch, The Dirty Dozen, The Seven Samurai—the examples multiply. Jackman’s bloodthirsty band of gunfighters begin as cavalry “bummers,” a squad of Union foragers ordered by General William Tecumseh Sherman to help win the war by means of terror and mass destruction. They are to live off the land and make the civilian population of the South feel acutely the pain of war. Towns are sacked, bridges blown, slave owners hatcheted to death as their mission spirals into chaos and bloody anarchy.

The notion that, after the Civil War, violence south of the border spread across the continent like a stain until contained by the closing of the frontier is fairly dull and routine. Jackman’s most riotously original chapter, however, is his portrayal of the Winter family’s role in the Chicago municipal election of 1872, in the time of the uniquely corrupt administration of Ulysses S. Grant. His hard riding gunfighters come to the big city, contracted by General Philip Sheridan, get fancy haircuts and dandyish suits, and proceed to rip the joint up.

“There will be ballot-box stuffing,” says Noah Ross to the boys. “There will be repeat voting. There will be intimidation at the polls. There will be bribery. There will be trumped-up arrests of Republican election officials. There will be violence directed at anyone with a clean collar.”

Here, Jackman’s mordant view of politics resembles, not a spaghetti western, but that of Dashiell Hammett in novels like Red Harvest and The Glass Key—political parties as rival mobs of thugs. “A Republican is a man who wants you to go to church every Sunday,” says Honest Jim Plunkett, a Democratic party boss. “A Democrat is a man who says you can have a drink if you want.”

The Republican businessman trying to buy himself a municipal government, Quentin’s twin brother, Noah Ross, is more like a riverboat gambler than a concerned citizen. In a democracy, then as now, says Big Jim Plunkett, “Money ain’t nothing to the greatest currency of them all, gentlemen, the currency of votes.”

Come on down, Sheldon Adelman!

“There’s always a few who don’t make it through Election Day in Chicago,” says Honest Jim, “Always a few who get shot or stabbed or just hit a little too hard.”

With every election, jobs and livelihoods are at stake. And looking out for friends is the greatest political principle of them all. You vote the right way, in “this shrine to the power of free enterprise,” or you go in the river.

It is not clear whether Jackman, as a Canadian, means to celebrate or condemn the violence and corruption of 19th-century American political life. In any event, he is plainly fascinated by it. When the Winter family takes on the Irish, German, Polish and Italian workingmen who comprise the Democratic Party faction, the boys reliably take matters too far. When they turn the election into another shootout at the OK Corral, the Democratic mob, enraged by the Republican attempt to treat Chicago “like a defeated secessionist city,” chase them out of town on a rail.

The municipal election result, in any event, is of scant interest to the Winter family. Their sole concern is rape and plunder, their only bonds forged in loyalty to each other under fire. Jackman, in true cinematic fashion, creates gripping suspense by setting up the danger Augustus Winter and friends present to any room they walk into and waiting for them to explode, since gunfire is their automatic response to any opposition. This characterization makes his book hard to put down.

As far as psychological insight goes, the only distinction made by Jackman is between differing types of homicidal maniac: passionate and erratic, or cold and surgical. Both are entirely without mercy. Augustus Winter is a nihilist superhero. Eventually, you stop believing in his ability to out draw and out shoot every single opponent he encounters. You start to think of cartoon animation, instead of the cinema.

Jackman’s poetry-loving killer, Quentin Ross, quotes William Blake to the effect that “reason is only the outward bound of what we know.” The emotion that animates this book is implacable hatred between North and South, Democrat and Republican, black and white, rich and poor, made barely respectable by a thin veneer of “We the People.”

The Winter Family envisions 19th-century America as a slaughterhouse: pigs in the stockyards of Chicago, buffalo on the plains, African Americans and Native people everywhere. When this gunfighter brotherhood finally meets its end in the Oklahoma Territory, we do not feel that much has been lost. Ross reflects: “The feeling was that he was doing something very, very wrong in the service of some higher ideal that was slipping further away, all the time.”

Psychopathy is the American affliction. Yet it wins wars, settles continents and promotes democracy around the world. This is the unsettling paradox that animates Clifford Jackman’s fine novel.