"It was at a place called Pappy's Farm," Wolle drawls, "out Dogwood Road somewhere, I have no idea. It was real tiny, it was a lousy event, but my eyes went boing--like, 'Wow, look at that!' . . . My quote to myself was, 'I can't watch this, I gotta be in it.' So they took me out in the field and I fired the rifle--it was just powder. I was like, 'Gee, wow, look at that!' I was really intrigued. To me it was the mythology of it. It's like you're living in a sort of a dream world. . . . I can't even believe people do that, and yet, there they are!" After 25 years pursuing what he calls (in print) "The Hobby," he still laughs at the very idea of it.
Now, Wolle has invited readers to enter his wisecracking, beer-swilling, and, he insists, fictional world of grown men playing soldier. His book Lincoln's Hope, released last fall by the writer-driven online house Greatunpublished.com, brings together a decade's worth of humorous vignettes starring Henry, an enthusiastic but wrongheaded volunteer in the latter-day Union Army. Rather than developing a plot or even a sequence of events, the book's scenes play out a vaguely cyclical series of staged battles, faux-19th-century conversations, alcoholic reveries, encounters with puzzled nonre-enactors, and run-ins with "authenticity police." Along the way, readers are treated to earnest play-by-play analyses of real Civil War battles as well as Henry's own garbled reworkings of history. The protagonist, convinced that he knows the Civil War because he's "experienced" it, has little respect for history geeks who have never done guard duty.
The actual War Between the States lasted a mere four years; Wolle (pronounced "Wally") has been re-enacting it for six times that long. He started out as a Confederate volunteer but switched to the Union in the early '90s--not for political reasons, but because his best friend had decided to "go Yankee." The Rebs, it seems, switched costumes too often, and Wolle's pal, Dennis, "knew the Yankees had only one uniform." Around 1995, Wolle retired from combat duty after reading a biography of Horace Greeley, the famous wartime editor of The New York Tribune. He now acts the part of a nameless Tribune war correspondent, although, even out of costume, he looks a bit like Greeley himself, with a lofty dome of a forehead, wire-rimmed spectacles, and burgeoning whiskers. (One obvious difference: Greeley kept his beard below the jaw line, like a neck warmer, a fashion that has gone the way of shoe buttons and chattel slavery).
In so-called real life, the recently married Wolle works for a Maryland Lottery Commission contractor and lives where he grew up, in a cottage off Ingleside Avenue in Catonsville. Although he's just the right age to have been infected with Civil War fever--his boyhood intersected with the centennial Blue/Gray hype of 1961 to '65--he says his interest remained latent: "My family didn't go out that much. I never got to Gettysburg until I was, like, 20." Before the fateful detour to Pappy's Farm, he played drums in a number of local rock 'n' roll groups; among his former bandmates, he proudly claims homeboy John Duchac, aka John Doe, of the '80s Los Angeles punk band X, whom he credits with turning him on to poetry. Wolle still writes verse, but save for a few mock-19th-century camp songs that appear in Lincoln's Hope, he hasn't published any since putting out a collection called Expired Efforts/Burial Details in 1986.
But the new book, his first published work in prose, retains poetic qualities one might not expect in a book about men who play with muskets. The short, self-contained passages have a natural read-aloud rhythm. The language is raucous and the subject matter is more than a little ridiculous, but there's a wistful seriousness around the edges. Bemused by whatever it is that drives his characters, Wolle's too much of a poet, and/or too much of a joker, to give it a name. Perhaps he has invented a new subgenre: postmodern Civil War fiction.
The trick will be finding an audience, and for that, on-demand publishing seems like an ideal strategy--surely a vast improvement over the sucker-bait vanity-publishing industry. With Wolle's Web-based publisher, writers submit text electronically and pay a per-title fee. Readers buy books online, either in electronic form, as paperbacks, or as signed copies of the manuscript. Not very 19th century, to be sure, but Wolle is pleased with the finished product. He even wrote his own blurbs ("Like Mark Twain on a particle accelerator"), and doesn't mind saying so. "It hadn't even been published yet," he chuckles, "so who'd have read it that could even give me a quote?"
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