Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Amalgamation Polka

by Stephen Wright

From the publisher:
Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a bright star in the literary sky," Stephen Wright now extends his astonishing accomplishment with a Civil War novel unlike any other.

Born in 1844 in bucolic upstate New York, Liberty Fish is the son of fervent abolitionists as well as the grandson of Carolina slaveholders even more dedicated to their cause. Thus follows a childhood limned with fugitive slaves moving through hidden passageways in the house, his Uncle Potter's free-soil adventure stories whose remarkable violence sets the tone of the mounting national crisis, and the inevitable distress that befalls his mother whenever letters arrive from her parents' a conflict that ultimately costs her life and compels Liberty, in hopes of reconciling the familial disunion, to escape first into the cauldron of war and then into a bedlam more disturbing still.

Rich in characters both heartbreaking and bloodcurdling, comic and horrific, The Amalgamation Polka is shot through with politics and dreams, and it captures great swaths of the American experience, from village to metropolis to plantation, from the Erie Canal to the Bahamas, from Bloody Kansas to the fulfillment of the killing fields. Yet for all the brutality and tragedy, this novel is exuberant in the telling and its wide compassion, brimming with the language, manners, hopes, and fears of its time, all of this so transformed by Stephen Wright's imaginative compass that places and events previously familiar are rendered new and strange, terrifying and stirring. Instantly revelatory, constantly mesmerizing, this is the work of a major writer at the top of his form.

From the Washington Post:
When Wright is sitting firmly in the saddle, The Amalgamation Polka reads like a cross between John Barth and John Waters, and is often entertaining; when he's not, it resembles a Victorian morality play by the over-excitable cult porn director Russ Meyers. My guess is that Wright himself, if asked to account for his excesses, would probably admit to them with pride. To quote a phrase attributed to P. T. Barnum, whose "Hall of Wonders" turns up in the novel: "Let them call me unreasonable if they must, but never, ever, let them call me boring."

From the New York Times:
The perpetual danger in Wright's novels is that the book's forward momentum will be swamped by the trippy fecundity of his prose. He always has time for a detour. Before, say, the former slave living in the Fishes' root cellar can show Liberty his scars, Wright must pause to describe the man's style of shucking peas, "the pods splitting neatly open beneath his broad thumbs like emerald wallets, the peas tumbling into the bucket as noisily as balls of shot." Tantalized with too many such images, a reader can become as disoriented and distractible as someone on hallucinogens. But in The Amalgamation Polka, Wright gets the balance just right, and the rich, droll style he uses here — both tribute to and parody of 19th-century diction — becomes, like the canal water conveying Captain Whelkington's boat, a means of travel as well as an interesting stew in its own right.