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By Russell Banks
758 pages, $27.50

In the 1950s, The Weavers recorded a song about the Underground Railroad, "Follow the Drinking Gourd" (the drinking gourd being the Little Dipper, which points to the North Star), in which escaped slaves fleeing north were told that if they followed the drinking gourd, "The Old Man is a'waitin' for to carry you to freedom."

The Old Man was militant abolitionist John Brown, who, from his home in North Elba, in the Keene Valley, was a link in the underground chain: a confidant of Frederick Douglass, a co-worker of Harriet Tubman and an activist in the anti-slavery wars. Now famed, having been -- along with his sons -- an abolitionist guerrilla in "bleeding Kansas" just before the Civil War, and for his abortive raid on the government arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Va., Brown started out as an abolitionist of a more conventional sort in North Elba, where the Old Man's body now lies a moldering in its grave, under the shadow of Mount Marcy, called Cloudsplitter by the Indians.

Historians continue to find Brown a perplexing figure, and the question remains: was he a deranged sociopath or a visionary who understood the violence of armed struggle to be the only antidote to the violence of slavery? Was the Harper's Ferry raid, for which Brown was hanged and his band of raiders almost all killed, pure delusion or a calculated strategy to insert himself into history as a martyr in order to, as the old Marxists used to say, speed up the dialectic?

Novelist Russell Banks in his novel "Cloudsplitter" does not shy away from these questions, but rather by portraying Brown as a warrior in the Lord's army, depicts him as a typical though extreme product of American Puritan culture. In America in the middle of the last century, in a country half slave and ruled in Washington by President Franklin Pierce and the Slavocrats, you needn't be crazy to believe that violence in the name of abolition was the Lord's work. Though the extremity of the situation might well unbutton your mind, you need not have been deranged to take on the American military at Harper's Ferry, merely blinded by righteousness to the odds against the spontaneous slave uprising you hoped to inspire. It was precisely Brown's obstinate moral obsession that precipitated the fiasco, by collapsing the distinction between himself and the biblical prophets he sought to emulate.

Banks' "Cloudsplitter" is not a great novel; it is too prone to digression, too indulgent of minutiae and too languidly paced for its material. But there is no disputing its rough-hewn magnificence. It aspires to the grandeur of its subject: a single man's tragic struggle against one of the great crimes of history, slavery, and it captures just enough of that grandeur to be a novel that one hopes others will read. It is told from the viewpoint of John Brown's third son, Owen, as an old man in Altadena, Calif., reflecting in long and rambling letters to one Miss Mayo, a research assistant to historian Oswald Garrison Villard, writer of the great biography of Brown, "John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After."

Owen was the only one of Brown's sons -- of those who went into Harper's Ferry with him -- to have escaped the debacle alive, and the story is as much of himself as of his father. A brusque, awkward and solitary man who never married, he stands self-accused of being the Judas of Harper's Ferry, because he alone, more militarily shrewd than his prophecy-blinded father or those who believed in the Old Man's infallibility, knew the raid would be an ambush and failed to speak up. Now, almost 50 years after, a lonely shepherd on a California mountain top, as far from civilization as possible, Owen Brown pours out to Miss Mayo all the memories, marinated in years of pain and regret, that he can salvage from the wreckage of his life.

The stories Owen Brown tells his Miss Mayo revolve around the Underground Railroad, the abolitionist movement, the Pottawatomie massacres, tales of Bleeding Kansas and Harper's Ferry, but always come back to himself as the Old Man's son, "not half the man" his father was, as he is bluntly told by Lyman Epps, a black compatriot on the Underground Railroad.

If "Cloudsplitter" were only a dramatized collision of principles -- slavery versus righteousness -- it would be just another ballyhooed blockbuster with a leaden soul. But by being also about collisions of the heart, between a father and his sons, and between blacks and whites, who, even as they work side by side for the abolition of slavery find envy and anger mingled with love and trust, the book generates complex metadramas that blur meanings, multiply ambiguities and darken the Lord's work with the slithering emotional undercurrents of human desire.

The death of Lyman Epps, for instance, who is shot by his own gun as Owen hands it to him with the trigger fully cocked, is one case in point. Did Owen foresee that Lyman would mishandle the gun? Did this have anything to do with Lyman's telling Owen he wasn't half the man his father was? Did Owen's sexual obsession with Lyman's wife poison the wells between them, making some final blowup inevitable? And when Owen, after Lyman's death, declares himself a warrior impatient for the violence to begin, are we seeing the seeds of Harper's Ferry being sown out of racial guilt and sexual torment?

There are, to be sure, the usual fusions of character and event that power the action novel, as Owen Brown carries us along with him on the Underground Railroad, following the drinking gourd with a cargo of runaway slaves while armed bounty hunters give chase. And even there moral ambiguities abound, as the escaped slaves turn out to be wanted by the authorities for the murder of their master. We watch John Brown turn himself into a conventional businessman and get fleeced by London sharpers in trying to sell American wool on the British market. We meet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who admonishes an audience of abolitionists to "always do what you are most afraid to do." Brown dismisses him: "That man's truly a boob!"

We witness in bloody detail the Brown clan's hacking to death five farmers along the Pottawatomie River in May 1856, about which Owen Brown reflects, "We turned Kansas bloody."

Behind everything there was the Bible, most particularly the Old Testament, and the residues of American Puritan culture on which the Old Man and his sons founded their characters and modeled their conduct. "It is the Holy Bible that impels us to action" Brown declared, and he even took it for a military manual, noting how Gideon, confronting the Midianites "divided his three hundred men into three companies of one hundred each and according to the dream he himself would lead one company only."

It is in this, it seems to me, that Banks' efforts to psychologize the Browns hit paydirt: that the Bible was for all of them id, ego and superego; it was their imagination, their guide to justice, to action, to strategy, to the heart itself. It was their consciousness and their unconscious, even the taproot of what Owen Brown calls his father's "stupidity of the heart," an ignorance of real people that was the counterpart to his passion for justice.

"Cloudsplitter" is Russell Banks' 13th book and his most serious bid for the brass ring of being a writer who defines his time. Readers may know him as author of "Continental Drift" or "The Sweet Hereafter" made into a movie last year by Atom Egoyan.

A film of the novel "Affliction" will be released next fall, starring Nick Nolte. This is Banks' moment in the limelight, with a novel that for all its longueurs does touch the hem of magnificence. Indeed, its last 200 pages, the lead up to Harper's Ferry, are swift and gripping drama.

"Cloudsplitter" is history as entertainment as moral inquiry, like the great nineteenth-century novels it seeks to emulate, and emulates, it seems to me, with remarkable fidelity and passion.