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Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician: A Novelby Daniel Wallace
Synopses & Reviews
From the author of Big Fish comes this haunting, tender story that weaves a tragic secret, a mysterious meeting with the Devil, and a family of charming circus freaks recounting the extraordinary adventures of their friend Henry Walker, the Negro Magician.
In the middle of a dusty Southern town, in the middle of the twentieth century, magician Henry Walker entertains crowds at Jeremiah Musgrove's Chinese Circus. Though not the world-famous illusionist he once was, Henry, with his dark skin and green eyes, is still something of a novelty to the patrons who pay a dime to see his show. Most of the patrons, anyway.
As the novel begins, one May night in 1954, Henry is confronted by three menacing white teens, and soon thereafter disappears. With his fate uncertain, his friends from the circus — Jenny the Ossified Girl, Rudy the Strong Man, and JJ the Barker — piece together what they know of Henry's mysterious and extraordinary life. The result is a spellbinding adventure that begins when ten-year-old Henry meets the devil, who gives him the art of magic and then steals the one thing that means the most to him. As Henry's friends recount the remarkable adventures and incredible heartache that result from this childhood encounter, only one thing seems certain about Henry's life: nothing is as it appears.
Brimming with surprising twists and turns, and peopled with a literal circus of memorable characters, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is Daniel Wallace at his finest. As in his beloved debut, Big Fish, Wallace once again conjures a wondrous tale with an emotional punch. This is a story of love and loss, identity and illusion, fate and choice; a story that will capture your heart and your imagination and not let go until the very last page.
"The Devil in Daniel Wallace's engaging if sometimes elusive new novel, 'Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician,' frequents upscale summer resort hotels, lives in Muncie, Ind., knows a fair number of card tricks and is very, very white. The Depression is raging when Henry Walker, the story's hero, first meets the Devil, aka Mr. Sebastian, in room 702 of the Fremont Hotel. Henry is 10... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) — his mother is dead, his handyman father is a hapless alcoholic, and he has just lost his younger sister Hannah's affections to a stray dog named Joan Crawford. Dejected, he enters the room to find a man 'sheet white, cloud white,' moving a coin between his fingers and mysteriously disappearing and reappearing. Mr. Sebastian offers to teach Henry the secret of magic, beginning with sleights such as the Montana Hideaway and the Carpathian Struggle, but soon moving to real magic, unexplained, dangerous magic of the sort that requires the swearing of a blood oath: 'I swear never to reveal the source of my magic or ... perform any illusion to a nonmagician without first practicing the effect until the illusion is perfect; otherwise I will lose all that I have gained. I swear not only to practice illusion, but to live within it, to seem but not to be, for only in this way can we fully partake in the magical world.' Henry promises, and a few weeks later during an impromptu magic show again in Room 702, makes Hannah disappear. The problem is, despite all he tries, he can't get her to come back. Hannah's disappearance and Henry's lifelong search for her become the subject of a peripatetic narrative told by members of Jeremiah Mosgrove's Chinese Circus, where Henry Walker washes up in the 1950s. We learn that after Hannah's disappearance Henry took up with the Barnum-esque Tom Hailey, who convinced him to take melanin pills and sit in front of a light box to make himself appear black. After all, Hailey says, 'There's a glut of Caucasian prestidigitation right now.' Now known as Bakari (Swahili for One Who Will Succeed), Henry becomes a celebrity as a Negro magician until Hailey dies, the pills run out, and he is white again. After a fantastic stint in World War II in which Henry's magic is improbably credited with a crucial mission, and one extraordinary performance during which, appearing under his own name, he brings his dead assistant and lover back to life only to lose her again, he reapplies blackface and goes out into the world performing as two men: one skilled and white, one bumbling and black. In this schizophrenic state, Henry tracks down and does battle with Mr. Sebastian, but can anyone really beat the Devil? If it all seems dreamy and unbelievable, it's supposed to. Wallace's structure is its own parlor trick. Did Henry really make Hannah disappear? Was she abducted? Was she given up by her father, and is she now living a respectable life with Mr. Sebastian? The revolving narration makes each fragment of Henry's story true for the one who tells it, yet when truth itself remains a perpetual illusion, a book can teeter on the verge of sophistry. All becomes suggestion and misdirection, never allowing exploration of the larger themes of race and the evils of hypocritical respectability at which it hints. Instead of giving us so many characters freighted with mystery and seeming meaning, such as Jenny the Ossified Girl, Wallace might have let himself go deeper into the description that Jeremiah Mosgrove, the circus proprietor, gives of Henry as 'an American of the highest order: a self-made freak.' The questions remain: Why are Negro magicians so rare? What is the cost of changing skins? Why does the Devil make pacts with the most mundane people? Without answers, we are left with a shadowy Henry whose personality and sense of purpose too easily vanish in a puff of smoke. But maybe that, too, is the point. Mr. Sebastian tells Henry that to make real magic 'you have to find an audience who think they understand what's happening. ...You will seek to present an effect so clever and skillful that the audience won't believe their eyes, and can't think of the explanation, but feel in their hearts there is one. But there won't be; even you won't be able to explain it. The sense of universal bafflement is part of the entertainment.' If Mr. Sebastian is to be believed, there is certainly magic here. Sheri Holman is the author of four novels including 'The Dress Lodger' and 'The Mammoth Cheese.'" Reviewed by Jonathan YardleyJennifer VanderbesRobert G. KaiserRon CharlesSusan P. WilliamsBill SheehanRobert PinskyJonathon KeatsAnne ApplebaumSheri Holman, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A deft and economical writer with a fine ear for dialogue." The Atlanta Journal Constitution
"Not until the very end of the book do the characters and plots snap into sharp focus....[Wallace] — like any good magician — refuses to give away all of his secrets." Los Angeles Times
"[A] readable and quirky off-center confection....It is a story of the fabulous, one that freely mixes the real and the desired in equal parts, so that the reader never knows quite what to believe." Denver Post
"Wallace brings to his role as author wit, a subtle compassion, and an offbeat originality." The Boston Globe
"[A] masterly novel about love and illusion, friendship and sacrifice." Library Journal
"Wallace's fractured fairy tale may strike readers new to the author as somewhat gimmicky; it will appeal to his fan base." Booklist
Brimming with surprising twists and turns, and peopled with a literal circus of memorable characters, this is Wallace at his finest. As in his debut, Big Fish, Wallace once again conjures a wondrous tale with an emotional punch.
It’s 1950 and magician Henry Walker is traveling through the South with Jeremiah Musgrove’s Chinese Circus.Though once a world-famous illusionist, Henry seems to have lost his magic, and when the novel opens he’s in some serious trouble with three angry white teens. With Henry's fate uncertain, his friends from the circus narrate a spellbinding tale of how Henry came by his magic: When he was ten years old Henry met the devil, who gave him the gift—and then stole the one thing that meant the most to him. The result is great adventure and tragedy, enthralling to the last page.
Full of surprising twists and peopled with a literal circus of memorable characters—many of whom narrate Henry’s story—MR. SEBASTIAN AND THE NEGRO MAGICIAN is riveting and accomplished. As Wallace conjures up the warmth of the circus family against the backdrop of the South, he performs some literary magic of his own. Woven into Henry’s poignant, enchanting story are powerful explorations of family, race, and morality.
A wonderful combination of storytelling magic and literary sophistication, MR. SEBASTIAN AND THE NEGRO MAGICIAN is Wallace’s best novel yet.
About the Author
Daniel Wallace is the author of three novels, including Big Fish. His stories have been published in many magazines and anthologies, including The Yale Review, The Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah, and Glimmer Train. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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