Book Review: The James Boys by Richard Liebmann-Smith

A little something from the odds-and-ends file today: a book review.

While most of what gets covered here is directly connected to English language usage and vocabulary, especially as it relates to editing, I’m not above bending the rules slightly now and then. Today, I’m bending for a book review.

But it’s not just any book review. It’s a book worth talking about in terms of language and vocabulary.

The book is The James Boys by Richard Liebmann-Smith (Random House, 2008). It’s an interesting piece of rampantly speculative historical fiction based on the idea that the two most famous sets of James brothers in US history – Henry and William, in the East; Jesse and Frank, in the West – were, in fact, all brothers with each other.

It’s an interesting idea, and one well worth attempting across an entire book. Liebmann-Smith grounds the story in the fact that Henry (the great story writer and novelist) and William (his smarter brother, the psychologist at Harvard) had two younger brothers: Robertson (Rob) and Garth Wilkinson (Wilkie), both of whom fought for the Union in the Civil War. While in our reality Rob and Wilkie returned and continued with their lives, in Liebmann-Smith’s account neither does and both are presumed lost. It only gets wackier from there.

By a series of acts, accidents, and misfortunes, Rob and Wilkie become Jesse and Frank James, first as unwilling Confederate guerrillas and then as infamous outlaws. Circumstances eventually bring the Western Jameses and the Eastern Jameses back into contact, leading to a number of amusing situations. Henry James, for instance, is pressed into riding with the James-Younger gang during their disastrous (and historically genuine) bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota; Frank and Jesse eventually turn up at Harvard, posing as visiting professors while seeking help from William.

The womenfolk are not ignored, either, as the James brood’s only female (Alice) gets involved while “the other Alice” (Alice Gibbens, later William’s wife) plays a minor role. The important woman in this story, however, is Elena Hite, daughter of a (fictional) wealthy eastern railroad baron, who becomes an object of interest (and some contention) among at least three of the four brothers. Other prominent contemporary historical persons cross these pages, including Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, a fistful of Pinkertons, and several former Civil War heroes and villains.

The idea of this novel is on the one hand entirely preposterous, but on the other brilliant. In execution, it’s not bad. Reviews of the book since it first appeared have been mixed,  but generally tended to the positive side. I can’t admit that I thought it was a “great book,” but it had it’s moments. I don’t feel I wasted my time with it (always a plus!), but I also can’t say exactly that I’d enthusiastically recommend it. It will depend on your taste and interests. It’s a unique creation, not fitting normal categories. For example, it’s got a number of funny parts – Billy Pinkerton’s near-psychotic delusions and conspiracy theories, for instance – but it’s no laugh riot. And while it has some interesting and artful craft, it’s not a book that I would tell every writer they need to read for craft’s sake.

Two things make this book especially interesting – and make it appropriate for discussion here. The first is the style. Liebmann-Smith makes a passable effort to write the book in something like the Jamesian style (both Henry and William). It’s not a spot-on imitation – it never could be, and likely would be unreadable if it had been. But he captures enough of that still-too-inflated late Victorian post-Romantic style of the period to keep the mood (and the joke) going.

The second thing is the vocabulary. The author goes out of his way to find, use, and possibly even create, the sort of obscure and pedantic words that period authors did. They enhance the novel’s eccentric, period atmosphere. A few examples: absquatulate, rebarbative, odobenidan, gamahucherie. Give yourself points for any of them you can define without looking up. (I’ll include definitions below.)

The work is liberally sprinkled with asides and references to what I presume to be actual scholarship on the James family (William and Henry, primarily, but Jesse, Frank, Alice, and Henry, Sr., are not overlooked). Clearly Liebmann-Smith did the leg work, and he is to be applauded for making that effort, as well as for using the real facts in ways that support his creative liberties.

And yet…despite the solid foundation in truth, the frequently high-brow style, and the amusing vocabulary, the subject matter and jokes are just as frequently low-brow. There’s a running joke, beginning on the first page of the introduction, about William James being a compulsive masturbator (apparently based on some legitimate if speculative scholarship). Later, there’s a very lengthy poop joke at Henry James’ expense. Considering that Liebmann-Smith has written not only for The New Yorker and Smithsonian Magazine, but also for The National Lampoon, and that he’s a co-creator of The Tick animated series, this unique mingling of elements probably shouldn’t be surprising.

But is this, in the end, a work that takes the joke too far? Can we accept a Pullman-car shootout between the James Boys and Pinkertons in Boston? Bizarre as it might sound, I think we can. But as I noted earlier, taste and interest come into play. If a reader is a fan of either literary James, they’ll probably get a kick out of this book; or, if they’re able to engage with the wacky hijinks of this brand of speculative history, they might also enjoy it. On the other hand, if none of that interests them, it’s faux-literary realist style might at times become tedious, despite the several entertaining plot threads that spool out across its length.

I’m not sure if ‘grading’ a book is always appropriate, but a book review doesn’t seem to have closure without some sort of rating. Let’s call it a solid “A-“, which is definitely a good grade in my accounting.

Those promised definitions:
absquatulate: to abscond with
rebarbative: repellent
odobenidan: walrus-like
gamahucherie: an obscure French slang term for oral sex

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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