Francis "Gil" Gilheaney is a sculptor of boundless ambition, but bad fortune and pride have driven him and his long-suffering daughter Maureen into artistic exile in Texas just after World War I. When an aging rancher commissions Gil to create a memorial statue of his son who was killed in action, Gil believes it will be his greatest achievement. But as work proceeds on the statue, Gil and Maureen come to realize that their new client is a far more complicated man than they ever expected, and that he is guarding a secret that haunts his relationship with his son even in death.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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They tore at the earth with their entrenching tools and mess-kit lids as the shells burst all around them and in the scattered pine tops overhead. They were already dug in but they needed to be deeper, because there did not seem to be any way to survive above the ground. The concussive turbulence sucked away the air. The men gasped for breath in the vacuum.
Shrapnel pierced the tree trunks and ploughed into the earth with hissing force as the ground heaved and pitched like a malevolent carnival ride. Arthur Fry, a nineteen-year-old feed store clerk from Ranger, Texas, thought one of his ears might have been sliced off but he was not sure. There was a thick pooling warmth below the rim of his helmet but no pain. The blasts had blown dirt into his eyes and when he tried to squeeze them shut it felt as if the insides of his eye- lids were lined with broken glass. He had not been under fire before and could not recognize with any clarity the sounds and signatures of the shells. They were supposed to be able to differentiate the smell of mustard gas from that of ordinary high explosive, but in this endless barrage there was no way to tease out one toxic smell from another and the order had not come down to put on their gas masks.
Some of the shells rattled and shuddered like they were tearing the sky apart and some carved a narrow screaming path. In the last few days the Germans had been pushed off Blanc Mont Ridge by the Second Division and now they were engaged in a fighting retreat, using up all the ammunition they did not plan to carry with them in a furious, indifferent barrage of whiz-bangs and jack johnsons and GI cans and other shrieking varieties of ordnance whose names Arthur did not know.
Thick clods of dirt pattered down on his back and then Arthur heard the shell that he was sure was going to kill him, an abruptly withdrawn shrillness somewhere in the sky overhead, a predatory silence as the descending shell concentrated on the terrain below, patiently searching him out. It finally exploded just over the slight swell of land that hid them from the enemy, an eruption whose vicious force seemed to come not from the sky but from deep below, as if the shell had plunged to the core of the planet and detonated there. The inside of his head roared with soundlessness. He could not even hear his own whimpering. He pressed his face still closer to the noxious, gaseous earth. He tried to concentrate on the feel of the cool dirt against his skin.
When he forced his eyes open again it was in response to an odd little brush against his sleeve. Through the haze of gas and dirt he saw an animal he had never seen alive before running about in tight, frantic circles between him and Ben Clayton. In their camions on the way to the front they had passed smashed hedgehogs on the roads, but they had seemed like slow-moving and primitive things and he could never have guessed at their living vibrancy. This one hopped in confusion, its soft quills lying flat and its nose twitching madly as it scrambled around and around searching for a place of safety.
Arthur looked over to Ben. He had the odd thought that he should reach out and grab Ben’s shoulder and point out the strange creature to him. He would have liked to impress his friend, to show that his light- hearted curiosity was greater than his fear. But he could not make himself move and there was no possibility Ben could hear him over the roar of the shells. And in an instant the hedgehog straightened out in its flight and disappeared, bounding back toward Blanc Mont.
Another shell exploded twenty or thirty yards down the line and then the barrage ended. The air trembled in the sudden silence. Arthur turned over on his back and looked up at the sky through the swirling chemical vapors and touched his ear. The monstrous wound he expected to find there was nothing but a shallow cut, the bleeding already stanched by a makeshift plaster of gummy soil.
“Jesus God in heaven!” somebody called, and when Arthur looked toward the sound he saw a man lying on his back, his body blown open and his splintered bloody ribs exposed. The dying man stared in fascination at the gaping maw of his own chest and held his trembling hands in the air. He screamed for somebody named Aunt Agnes. Arthur tore his eyes away and convinced himself he hadn’t seen this or heard it; it was just some horrible spasm of imagery that his mind had produced. He had no more responsibility to believe in it than he did to believe in the nightmares of his childhood.
From up and down the line they could hear the groans and pleadings of the wounded. It had stopped raining sometime during the night but the ground was still wet and as the stretcher bearers and runners hurried now through the shallow trenches they kept sliding on the slick chalk that lay beneath the thin topsoil.
Sergeant Kitchens walked down the line to talk to the men and steady them, but Arthur could see he was not steady himself. “Keep digging in,” Kitchens said, “but don’t go all the way to China because it looks like we’ll be jumping off here soon enough.”
“You think this is really the jump-off line?” Arthur said in an unsteady voice to Ben, who was methodically picking away at the chalk with his entrenching tool. Ben looked up and said he guessed it was.
“Well, it’s a lot of open ground to cross, if you ask me,” Arthur said. Between them and the village there was a half mile of open scraggly ground with no cover except for almost untraceable dips in the terrain. The marines were supposed to be in possession of the main part of Saint-Étienne but nobody knew if that was really true. In any case the Boche were strongly entrenched behind a cemetery wall at the eastern end of the village, and on the far bank of the little stream, and on a solitary hill, deadly prominent, just ahead to their right. There were also machine-gun nests, Arthur knew, artfully concealed in every contour and pocket of ground.
“I don’t expect it’ll take us that long to get across it,” Ben said. His voice was clear and steady but his eyes had narrowed to a weird focus that gave Arthur no comfort. The change had come over Ben in the last few days, on the nighttime marches across the cratered fields from Somme-Suippe. What he had learned about his dad back home in Texas from one of the Indians in Company E had closed him in on himself. He wouldn’t talk much; his friendly open face had turned taut. When they stopped to rest or to eat their cold meals he sat apart from Arthur and fingered the little rectangle of metal, cut from some abandoned mess kit, upon which he had laboriously tapped out with a blunt nail his name and rank and unit along with a pretty decent sketch of a horse standing atop a shallow mesa. A number of the men had made trench art like it. They kept them in their wallets as a backup to their dog tags in case their bodies were blown apart and the pieces scattered among multiple heaps of the dead.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Stephen Harrigan¿s Remember Ben Clayton is a brilliant piece of writing. I use five consistent characteristics of good fiction to measure my reaction to a novel: fully developed characters, intriguing plot, pacing that matches plot, compelling prose, and realistic setting. If Remember Ben Clayton were a baseball player, it would, in fact, be one of those rare ¿five tool¿ players (based there on average, power, speed, throwing, and defense) because it delivers on all five of the qualities I most admire in a work of fiction. The book is filled with interesting characters. Ben Clayton, the title character, grew up on a remote Texas ranch under the care of a demanding father and longtime housekeeper. Lamar Clayton, Ben¿s grieving father, is a man filled with secrets and regrets, the worst of which directly impacted his relationship with Ben. Francis ¿Gil¿ Gilheaney is a respected sculptor whose stubborn pride has forced him to accept new commissions outside of New York City because he has offended that city¿s artistic power structure, effectively burning his bridges there. Maureen is Gil¿s adult daughter, a never-married woman who has devoted her own life to helping her father in his work. In addition, there is a young soldier, horribly scarred and deformed from battle, who has chosen to stay in France at the end of the war rather than face his friends and family as he is now. He, too, plays a key role in Stephen Harrigan¿s story.Lamar Clayton wants to place a memorial to his son on a remote plateau to which the boy would often ride when he wanted to be alone with his thoughts. Ben¿s body is still buried in France near the World War I battlefield on which he died, and Lamar hopes to find comfort in seeing a likeness of Ben and his horse where the boy spent so much time. Gil, who now lives in San Antonio, accepts the commission and soon comes to believe that the piece has the potential to be the best, and most genuinely artistic, work he has ever done ¿ something that will be admired long after his own death even though very few people will ever actually see it. Maureen is there to help in the research and construction of the piece¿s several stages (a fascinating process in itself that Harrigan walks the reader through in some detail).Things get complicated when Gil and Maureen, as part of their research into the character of young Ben Clayton, come to sense that there is much more to Ben¿s relationship with his father than Lamar is willing to share. Gil and Maureen, believing that they need to solve the mystery surrounding that relationship if Gil is truly to capture the essence of his subject, begin to pick at the scabs of Lamar¿s guilt. They will be shocked by the heartrending truth they discover about the Claytons ¿ and about themselves.Rated at: 5.0
Stephen Harrigan is the author of the best-selling novel, The Gates of the Alamo. His newest work of fiction is Remember Ben Clayton. Francis ¿Gil¿ Gilheaney is a talented sculptor who moves his family from New York to San Antonio, Texas to take advantage of a growing reputation for western-themed works of art. When Lamar Clayton, a crusty rancher, offers him a commission to create a statue to commemorate his son, Ben, killed in World War I, Gil sees it as an opportunity to sculpt a lasting legacy of his life¿s work. But everyone involved with this project harbors secrets. Set in Texas and France in the aftermath of ¿the war to end all wars,¿ Harrigan has captured the brutality of war, family relationships, and the role and meaning of art.I must admit, I was not excited about this novel when our local NPR station asked me to review and interview the author for a segment. Literature of the western US is not what I read ¿ as faithful fans of RabbitReader well know! But I read the first chapter and I was hooked. [Right now, I only have an uncorrected proof. I will insert the paragraphs from page 9 when I get a trade edition.]The battle scene of World War I and the cleanup in the aftermath of the war particularly affected me. We have so many novels on this subject ¿ Remarque, Crane, Heller, Mailer, O¿Brien ¿ yet time and again we plunge our young men, and now women, into war. Why haven¿t we learned ¿ and remembered -- the lesson of the horrors of war?The beginning of the novel¿s main story-line ¿ about 1920 ¿ was a bit slow at first, but it had enough meat to keep me chewing. As I began to delve into the secrets these characters held, my interest piqued. As the novel reached its climax, one secret after another came out; I expected one or two, but the majority came as a surprise.The prose is sparse and reminds me of Hemingway, but it fit the characters perfectly. The musings of the characters on art and its role in society ¿ and what it means to an individual artist ¿ were exceptionally absorbing. I could not help comparing the extensive research, planning, playing with his materials to the same things writers go through when creating a poem, a story, or a novel.This novel should appeal to a wide audience ¿ fans of cowboy lit, fans of historical fiction, and artists of all stripes. Due for publication in May of this year, I will repost this review then. 5 stars--Jim, 4/15/11
A wonderful read. Harrigan's characters are so compelling and vulnerable; you care about each one of them. Setting the artist's desire to create, not simply for pride but in response to the gift of talent, in the context of the ravages of war and the tyranny of family secrets is masterfully rendered. Just a fine, fine novel!
No need to recount the story, just the glorious way this tale unfolds, like a long drive across West Texas. Great writing, characters, back stories. Each primary character is flawed enough to be real and therefore worth caring about. Worth reading for anyone; for anyone from Texas, it is a must--a picture of our state and its recent history. I loved this book!
The writing is so beautiful that this book reaffirmed my faith in literature. You can hear the character's breathing they are so real. The story takes you into the Texas past, the Comanche past, and into the fox hole. It takes you into the hearts of people who have had experiences that are far distant from our own, yet they were reality for people living during those times. It's full of smiles and tears. I thank you Stephen Harrigan for every page.