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Book Review : British Major Who Took the Rap for Benedict Arnold

July 22, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Major Andre by Anthony Bailey (Farrar, Straus & Ciroux/Michael Di Capua Books: $15.95; 200 pp.)

We all knew about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but it took playwright Tom Stoppard to make these inert squatters of our imagination into rent-paying tenants.

For most of us, including this writer, the British major, John Andre, is a line in history. He is famous for being hanged and little else; and hanged as a kind of make-do substitute for the man George Washington really wanted to hang: traitor Benedict Arnold.

Gen. Arnold, who was preparing to turn over the stronghold of West Point to the British, escaped to a comfortable pension in London. Andre, who was carrying some of Arnold's plans back to his own lines, was caught.

Up to now, Anthony Bailey has been a writer of polished and evocative nonfiction. "Major Andre," terse, buoyant and unexpectedly moving, is historical fiction at its very best. History is our dictatorship over the dead. Bailey creates a piece of underground graffiti; a midnight chalk-mark that observes: "I lived too."

"Major Andre" takes the form--and Bailey's form is delicate and shrewd--of a series of monologues by the imprisoned Andre over the last five days of his life. They range between the past and the present. He speaks of his youth as a merchant's son in Switzerland and England, and of an abortive love affair with a girl named Honora.

Most of the looking back is much more recent; it relates Andre's rendezvous with Arnold, his attempt to ride south to the British lines at White Plains, a chance interception by a band of irregulars, and his detention by a brainy American officer who questions his disguise, has him searched, and confines him to a guarded house in the village of Tappan.

This account is interwoven with Andre's experience of what is actually happening during these final five days in Tappan: his trial and conviction by a panel of American generals, the British efforts to negotiate his release, Washington's refusal of a request that he be shot instead of hanged, and his final walk to the gallows.

All this is straightforward enough, though told with admirable economy and pace. We know, of course, that Andre will be caught and hanged; history tells us so. And even if we had missed school that day, we see that Andre is in captivity from the book's start, and that he doesn't really expect clemency. Bailey plays no tricks.

And still, he possesses us with a continuous painful suspense. We share Andre's apprehension when, coming ashore from a British warship in the Hudson River, he learns that he will not be able to return that way but must ride overland. On his night ride, we keep hoping that he will avoid capture. And once captured, we somehow catch his reasoned doubt and his irrational hope that a reprieve will come.

In short, Bailey virtually makes Andre of us. All the detail and liveliness of the story is absorbed into a more fundamental story: a man is alive and is going to die.

We care very much; and the reason we care is that Bailey has given us an Andre who is an indelible mix of charm, frivolity and human vulnerability. He is so human, in fact, that there is magic in it. The author--another instance of his ingenious use of form--gives us an inkling of it right off, in a foreword narrated by Tallmadge, the American officer who captured Andre and to whom most of his monologues are directed.

Tallmadge is matter-of-fact. He is a gruff schoolmaster turned soldier, but something has touched him. His last words, anything but prosaic, are: "I remember the short path that led through the front yard to the house in Tappan, and the shape of the latch that opened the door."

On the other side of that latch, we meet the silvery, self-doubting and innocently avid prisoner. Bailey's Andre is a kind of Boswell, a man whose frailties are his wings. He likes to have fun. He fancies himself a man of letters and an amateur actor. Theater images keep recurring; when he left his father's business to become an officer, it was with "an actor's hope of applause."

He has played a role in the real world--one that will shortly hang him--but he lives in his fantasies; and it is these that win us.

From the Hudson shore, he sees his ship, tiny in the distance. The bargemen have refused to ferry him back, and he faces the perilous ride south. He remembers, as a child, playing with a toy sailboat on the shore of Lake Geneva, and having the wind suddenly carry it far out of sight.

Now it is he who is being carried out of his own sight. Later, a day or so away from his death, he remembers himself again as a child--Jack, not John--and how he used to identify himself with all the Jacks in the nursery rhymes. Jack-Be-Nimble, Jack Sprat who could eat no fat, the house that Jack built, and finally, of course, the Jack who swarms up the insubstantial bean-stalk to slay the giant.

There is no self-pity in it. At the end, he behaves as a soldier, not as a child. "Climb up then, Jack. Wagon or vine," he says as he goes up the steps to the gallows, set up on a dray-cart. It is the reader who is left with the child.

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