THE WHITE DEVIL by Paul Hoffman
Penguin, h/b, £20.00
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
The White Devil is the fourth volume in a sequence of novels about Thomas Cale, a man seen by millions as a destroyer of tyranny in a world parallel to this but also considered by many others as a tyrant himself. This is a familiar old conundrum for historians, and before each chapter, there is a short quotation from equally fictitious histories discussing this very fact. It helps to generate a substance that supports the tale.
Alternative history is a conceit. It is adolescents casting dice over a Risk board or a serious-minded group of undergraduates struggling all night over Diplomacy. It rests on a presumption that history is about Great Men; not civilisations, cultures, beliefs, economies and the entire human species. It effectively trivialises the human story into entertainment.
The question then is, does The White Devil entertain?
The only answer can be that it does and does it very well. Hoffman has worked on the back story, creating the substance on which to base his tale. The point of departure from our history would appear to be the myth of the Hanged Redeemer and the consequences of a world in which Christian culture never fully developed. This is an ugly, savage world run by the brutish and the cunning in which all the issues that plague our existence are very prevalent. Hoffman has created this as a backdrop to make clear statements about the human condition in which strong characters perform in a weird plot inside an intense and discussive narrative.
In this alternative world, the United Estates, the democratic successor to the Spanish Empire in the North American continent, has freed black people from slavery without any civil war, but issues remain about `the coloured problem’. It becomes very clear that the problem white people have with black people is actually a white problem and always has been. Hoffman has set up a parody of our own times.
In this other world, The South is looking to secede from the United Estates to reintroduce slavery. The rendition of all the arguments contains familiar language and turns of phrases. Interestingly, in this world, the proponents of the war are very conscious that they need to defeat The North within a year or face destruction as an industrialised North turns its industry into producing armaments.
Against this vicious background, Thomas Cale seeks to lie low and not be detected as he is a wanted man in other countries around the world. He adopts another identity to find himself enlisted into a plot to murder a certain John of Boston in Dallas. Yes, it is that JFK thing all over again! This is the moment when the reader realises that Hoffman is having fun.
In the narrative, there is a lot of reflective commentary from Thomas Cale in which he expresses his thoughts and feelings about his own times. This provides depth to the tale, elevating it well above most other alternative histories. Cale is self-conscious and considerate, but he also hates himself, reverting to destructive powders at difficult moments.
The denouement is horrible. Hoffman has the courage to rip all his characters apart and does not hold back on the detail. As a novel, this is a well-constructed tale. The reader starts out with an alternative history and all the facile irritations this sort of story generates but is soon dragged into a challenging tale that questions our own times, attitudes and values as well.