The Battle of Pollock’s Crossing was the last of J.L. Carr’s novels to appear from a conventional publishing house. It was published in 1985, five years after A Month in the Country and, like its predecessor, it was short-listed for the Booker Prize, though on this occasion it missed out on a nomination. Once again, Carr drew heavily upon his personal experience: as a young man, he spent twelve months teaching in a small, mid-Western American town, which is the setting for this, his sixth novel.
Typically, Carr begins by showing us a glimpse of the ending before getting down to the business of showing us how to get there. Though the majority of the story is told in the third person, it is as good as narrated by George Gidner (uncle of Joe, from Steeple Sinderby), and is shot through with interruptions taken from Gidner, addressing a young woman on why he won’t return with her to the town of Palisades, South Dakota, to speak at a ceremony commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the eponymous battle.
Gidner starts off as a romantic, in love with the idea of America and the West, believing that his year of teaching will Change him. This latter aspiration arouses the suspicions of those who get to judge his worthiness to represent England overseas – what’s wrong with him, eh? what does he need to change? – but as we have learnt from Carr’s work to date, Romance does not exist. Gidner will not change, except in developing the determination never to go back to America, nor until the very end does he encounter anything that might change him.
Carr does not merely foreshadow the deaths from the outset, but gives us the names of the victims, Henry Farewell and James Aardvark, so that we are prepared to look for any sign of distinction, a clear explanation of why they will die, or rather, why they will be killed. The one is a Banker, owner of the Settlers Bank, a survivor in an era when Bank crashes are becoming increasingly frequent. The other is a Grocer, a seventy-five year old, long blind. His store is at the isolated Pollock’s Crossing.
The year is 1929/30. Wall Street has Crashed. Herbert Hoover, ideologically the worst possible man for this moment. In the climax to the story, his (unnamed) Vice President will visit Palisades, unwittingly triggering a hidden conspiracy that is is no way indicated by Carr throughout this book.
Farewell is Gidner’s first acquaintance is Palisades. He greets his new customer and hands over Gidner’s salary for the forthcoming month: $78. He also, sadly, disabuses Gidner’s Anglo-centric notions of a B&B and a sandwich shop and explains the financial costs of life in America. As Gidner is not only unprepared on every level, but on a direct route to financial disaster, Farewell, who is an book-reading Anglophile, offers him a room at his lodging house, at incredibly favourable rates, the balance of the ‘rent’ to be paid in conversations about England and its customs and sayings.
So the book follows two principal strands: Gidner’s day to day life teaching at a draconian, meticulously structured school and living frugally and without means to go further among aliens, and Farewell’s conversations with Aardvark about his holiday in England, and his encounter with the delightfully amenable Bella Bull, the whole of which may or may not be a complete fantasy.
Aardvark suggests this, but it’s notable, to me at any rate, that farewell’s time in England is not spent among the famous sights and landscapes, but rather in the archetypal small town of Great Minden (A Day in Summer) with a visit to his forefathers’ home in Yorkshire, Oxgodsby (A Month in the Country). These are too specific to be the product of a fantasy.
The book rolls on, placidly and unchanging. Gidner has issues with the school bully and ignoramus, Bosey Swatt and his girlfriend, Becky Farewell, Henry’s daughter. He is included in the start of Hunting Season (without Henry, who is not only a dangerously erratic shot but whose gun can go off without the trigger being touched). And he is terminated for challenging a piece of American Historical accuracy, that being the infamous Wounded Knee.
Until his year runs out, Gidner takes a very successful job under Farewell in his store, where his accent is a very powerful sales tool, but he has long since wanted nothing but to return to England.
He is allowed to leave on July 5th, a day after the town celebrations, which are to be attended by the Vice-President (Charles Curtis, incidentally). Which is when everything explodes into unexpected violence and terror.
Outside of Palisades, the Depression is gathering force across America. Palisades is not exempt, it is just that Gidner comes nowhere near to it. But in his recollections, he describes Farewell as having gone mad, and only realising this the day before July 4th, when Farewell rebates to him all his rent payments.
Because, without anyone being the wiser, Farewell has organised a group of farmers who plan to stop the Vice-President’s car and plead with him to aid to the country. And, as a quixotic gesture, he releases the mortgages of thirty-eight local farmers. As a consequence, the Bank collapses. The town riots, wanting to get their hands on Henry Farewell.
Gidner wants out, without delay. He is too identified with Farewell, he is treated as if he were an accomplice, though all he wants to do is to warn Farewell to clear out. Which he has already done, to Pollock’s Crossing, with Aardvark.
Gidner is beaten until this information is forced out of him. Having betrayed Farewell, he feels obliged to try to help, though the store is now cut off. The local, corrupt Police Chief wants to kill Farewell – he’s a Red in their eyes which, in some ways, he is – though the Sheriff wants to allow things to cool off overnight.
But Farewell prefers to force an ending than go to jail, and the inevitable happens, as we have been warned from the beginning. Both men are shot, and Farewell dies before the eyes of Gidner and Becky, his daughter.
So. We know the beginning, and the ending, although the middle has happened offscreen for the most part. Like Tom Birkin before him in A Month in the Country, Gidner leaves and doesn’t return. Nothing more is known. After all, the young woman sent to ask him to be Guest of Honour has not known what really happened at Pollock’s Crossing. Now she and we know, but the aftermath exists only in Gidner’s refusal to go back, or even write.