It’s said that a writer tells you how to a read a book with the opening lines. John Andrew Fredrick’s new novel, Your Caius Aquilla, isn’t shy about issuing those instructions, or saying much of anything else. Fredrick goes the epistolary route, compiling letters between a Roman Legionnaire (he signs off Your Caius Aquilla, you may have guessed) and his wife, Lora. The first letter opens like so:
Hail! I hope this missive finds you healthy and well. We sure have slain no small amount of Germans, Spaniards, Saxons, or Goths this week. Whew! I’m so tired. I can barely lift my sword arm over my elfin’ head – pardon my gallic. It’s been nothing but march, march, march, kill, kill, kill this entire campaign: none of your “hearts and minds” palaver and nonsense at all this time for sure.
The comic novel needs a nervy writer to try it and a talented writer to pull it off. Fredrick is both. He has a sense of humor and a sense of history. That’s not to say he writes a scene, steps back and says to himself, “Hmm. This doesn’t track with Daily Life in Ancient Rome,” nor should he. This is a book of unexpected, frenetic pleasures, and it unfolds in a hybrid world, with the hardships of love and distance filtered through frequently contemporary language. In the name of encouragement, Lora tells Caius to “Take care, come back safe, safe as houses, write soon, keep your guard up, & your pecker up, & your head down when you’re attacking, dear friend.” Caius complains that, “we drag everything off via wagon while campaigning, you know — why not a wood-fired pizza oven: makes no sense!” At another point, having fouled the atmosphere with his fellow men, he makes a perfect show of self-pity: “‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen – lend me your ears,’ the old adage goes, as everyone knows. But no lending of such will come my way now, alas…Were I to need a razor to cut my throat with I doubt anyone around here would even give it me!”
True to form for Fredrick, there are verbal pyrotechnics aplenty. Early on, there’s a complaint about, “The sounds you hear, so odd, so catch-as-catch-can, from these various alien peoples! So many of them, their vile languages, recall someone yakking profusely into a reverberant vomitorium, or a deaf mute being strangled with a belt, rope, or precious necklace.” So yes, Your Caius Aquilla is the best novel you’ll read this year containing the phrase “reverberant vomitorium” (slap that on the cover of the next printing!), but it’s a great deal more, as well. It’s a book of granular pleasures, endless line-by-line flurries of humor and precise phrasing. There are layers of meaning as well – a narrative thread concerning friendship, another on parenthood, and another still on the difficulties of love and distance. You’ll find aspects of satire on militarism as well, as when Caius notes that, “the Romans are not exactly a universal favorite, in terms of popularity, other countries-wise, principalities-wise, tribes-wise, & what you will. I mean, think about it: we do go around with a bit of an attitude, to say the least.”
Fredrick is one of those rare writers for whom it’s difficult to find contemporary kindred spirits, at least among his countrymen. Peter DeVries packed it in some time ago (he died, is what that means, in 1993). Jean Echenoz might nod approvingly, but he writes in French and despite his quality, doesn’t have a huge following here, despite a healthy selection of his work appearing in translation over the past fifteen years. For all the love France has shown American artists of all stripes (at times inexplicably), we’ve never returned the favor in kind, and certainly not for a writer. Todd McEwen is American, but he’s chosen a life in Scotland (and lately, who could blame him?), and American publishers have never figured out quite what to do with him.
This lack of immediate, known compatriots has probably worked against Fredrick on recognition grounds, but if it’s discouraged him at all, his output as a writer does an admirable job of hiding it. See 2017 as evidence: Fucking Innocent: The Early Films of Wes Anderson follows Your Caius Aquilla into the world next month. Such is not the response of a wilting violet. Then again, years onstage, playing and singing for a drunken rabble (or any kind of rabble, really) is sure to thicken the skin. Good, I say, and look confidently ahead to a time in the future when someone has the good sense and good taste to put together an omnibus edition of the King of Good Intentions trilogy, and Wes Anderson brings out a film built on a meta-narrative about a book on his early films, and — am I getting carried away? Your Caius Aquilla encourages it.
- John McIntyre
- (photo via http://www.rarebirdbooks.com/your-caius-acquilla)