Wednesday, December 19, 2007

THE KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara

The Killer Angels is Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, which was the turning point in the Civil War.

The narrative shifts among numerous commanding officers on both sides, with Longstreet and Chamberlain receiving the bulk of the attention. Shaara does a fantastic job of taking the reader inside the heads of these officers (and clearly differentiating among them personality-wise), and of showing the reader the emotions, the tactics and the chaos involved in war. He also does a solid job of incorporating background facts into the text (although some information is glaringly repetitious) without long and boring expository paragraphs, which occur only rarely.

Particularly early on, Shaara gets bogged down in his officers' rambling internal monologues. He also has the annoying tendency to put "he thought" in the middle of a passage that is already clearly monologue. For example: "Lee signed orders. I do too much myself. He was thinking: retreat is not even an option."

The biggest problem with The Killer Angels is Shaara's writing style, which is incredibly distracting. He piles on the sentence fragments with no regard for human life. Most egregious is the manner in which he puts periods in the middle of sentences. For example: "That hill will be a very strong position. Once it is fortified." Writers are taught that "he said" is preferable to "he shouted", "he whined", etc. But they're all better than Shaara's frequently-used "he gloomed".

Shaara's word choice in his imagery is often questionable, perhaps striving and failing to reach literary heights. He also overuses the word "handsome", particularly when describing characters. Never have there been so many "handsome" and "beautiful" men running around a battlefield.

All told, The Killer Angels is a well-researched, interesting read about one of the pivotal moments in U.S. history. It's not just for war buffs, although they will get more out of it than the average reader. It is unfortunate, though, that Shaara's writing idiosyncrasies are so off-putting.