Book Review - Charles McNair finally returns with ‘Pickett’s Charge’

Charles McNair reflects on the road to release of his second book, a novel 20 years in the making

Most people lose their mystique the more you get to know them, but not Charles McNair. For a time he played on an Italian baseball league. He grew up on a hundred-acre wood in the Alabama sticks. This year, he kept his Christmas tree up and living until Easter, decorating it for each passing holiday. After several conversations where he casually referenced his friend Rosanne, I put it together through context that he was referring to Rosanne Cash. The second time we ever met he confessed he only had one tattoo, and lifted up his pant leg to reveal a banjo on his knee. “I’m from Alabama,” he remarked with a mischievous smile. He told me someday he planned to shave his head and tattoo an homage to the Peach State on his skull, so Georgia could always be on his mind. While that trivia is fascinating, none of it is as curious as his career as a novelist. His first book, Land O’Goshen, was published in 1994 to some considerable praise. Publishers Weekly suggested that the book resembled what might have happened if “Faulkner had tried his hand at science fiction.” And then, nothing. For 19 years, his fictional output stood still.

During that time, McNair has been deeply ingrained in Atlanta’s literary scene. Often you can hear his voice, full of backwoods gravel and with a Southern accent thicker than molasses in January, on AM 1690 reviewing books. He’s been the Books Editor at Paste Magazine since 2005, in addition to working as a freelance writer and communications consultant. He’s served on the Decatur Book Festival’s programming committee for years. Nothing seems to give him greater pleasure than making connections and facilitating growth in the literary community. Often he can be seen making cameos at different literary events such as Write Club or True Story.

Despite being otherwise quite social, McNair is often too modest to discuss his own work. After knowing him for some time, I mistakenly assumed he had published other books since then and simply did not discuss them in private conversation. It took a dinner of pigs ears, pulled pork, and shepherd’s pie to get him to tell me that his sophomore effort, Pickett’s Charge, was set for publication after nearly two decades in the making.

Pickett’s Charge follows Threadgill Pickett through his escape from an old-folks home northward to finish the battle that he started nearly a century prior, to finish off the last surviving soldier of the Union Army in vengeance for his brother. The audacious and unrepentant Threadgill travels tirelessly on his epic journey north while encountering the KKK, a time machine, a Utopian society, and a man with an impressive collection of rabid raccoons along the way.

What many may not realize is that Threadgill’s mythical qualities and epic adventures so closely mirror McNair’s.

Pickett’s Charge began to evolve on the eve of the release of Land O’ Goshen, “I started nibbling at the edges of a new book ... it went slowly — touring takes time. I had a demanding corporate job. My daughter, Bonnie, my first and only child, was born the same year Land O’ Goshen came out. She, of course, always came first as a priority. Writing time proved scarce. Still, in bursts, I worked on the second novel through the years.”

The book was also quite a departure from McNair’s previous efforts. “All of Land O’ Goshen came out in first-person, a voice completely natural to me, one that I could tune in like a radio station signal for years and years, every time I sat down to write.” McNair recalls, “Elevating to 60,000 feet for omniscient third-person narration felt ... strange. Unnatural. It’s a lot easier to tell a story yourself than to write a story about someone else, which is really what third-person point of view boils down to.”

On May 1, 2009, McNair licked the stamps on the envelope holding the 525 pages of Pickett’s Charge and sent them on their way to Frederick Hill, his agent. Unbeknownst to McNair at the time, Hill had just recently finished treatments for Stage 4 colon cancer. Hill assured him that he was on the rebound, and that although it would take some time, he would read and promote the book for McNair despite the 15-year lapse since Land O’ Goshen. McNair, loyal to his agent, heard nothing but clocks ticking, “I always held in mind the notion of publishing Pickett’s Charge during one of the four years of the 150th anniversary of the war, between 2011 and 2015.” Only a Summer 2013 publication date would allow the book to coincide with the anniversary of the event which inspired the book in Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863.

Nine months passed, Hill was on the mend, and things were looking up for the manuscript. They passed the story around and a major house took interest pending some major plot revisions. McNair rolled up his sleeves and got to work with his editor, Jay Schaefer. Revisions took nine months. McNair could feel the pressure beginning to shadow over him, but wasn’t worried. They submitted the manuscript as soon as it was ready.

Tragedy struck. A month after the revised manuscript mailed in early 2011, Frederick Hill passed away. McNair found himself not only grieving the loss of a dear friend, but also with an orphaned manuscript in limbo, stranded at a publishing house. “I could take the manuscript back, send it out to new agents, have two or three say no, take up — how many months, years?” He couldn’t bear the thought of it. The manuscript sat on the desk of the publishing house, McNair declined to specify which, but without representation.

McNair went rogue. He followed up with the publisher himself, and then again two months later. They told him to be patient, and assured him it would be read. He followed up again, another month later. Then another month. “I called the next and the next, the first day of every month for a whole year.” McNair recalls. It was 2012. The bloom had rubbed off of his dreams of working with the large publication house. He asked for his book back. McNair was on a mission, and had to get Pickett out on time.

Much like Threadgill, the book sought resolution up north, by way of a smaller publication house, one with which McNair had a personal rapport with the editor. It seemed promising — after explaining the history of the book to the powers that be. It would take the approval of not one but two publishers at this publication house to get the book through. Weeks passed and McNair secured the approval of one, but after six months he still hadn’t secured the approval of the second. 2013 was quickly approaching. The clocks ticked.

“I withdrew the manuscript for a second time,” McNair recounts, “Then, on a Friday in Spring of 2013 I called the publisher of a small press at the University of West Alabama.” The University’s publishing house, Livingston Press, was essentially a one-man operation that McNair had great faith in, after having met its operator, Joe Taylor, nearly two decades prior. “I spoke late on a Friday afternoon with Joe. I explained the long, sorry history of Pickett’s Charge. A voice in my head whispered, ‘Well, here you are Charles, déjà vu all over again, another day, another publisher.’” Taylor promised to give him an answer by the following Monday. The weekend passed slowly.

McNair’s phone rang on Monday. Pickett’s Charge had finally found a home, back in McNair’s (and Threadgill’s) home state of Alabama.

An advocate of the belief that you can never fully understand a place without knowing where it came from — with Pickett’s Charge, McNair explores the many flaws and strengths of Southern consciousness in an attempt to make sense of the long-term aftermath of the war. Placing the book in the full context of its author and publication enlivens Threadgill’s epic journey even further — his motives become palpable, his odyssey justified.

Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair. Livingston Press. $30. 350 pp. Out Sept. 20.