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"[M]essy, disturbing, wildly imagined....Wray is playing at more than the horrors of antebellum society; he means to get at the vast, greedy hucksterism of America....This critique occasionally gets lost in Wray's hyperactive tale telling, but regardless, he keeps that tale dark and fascinating all the way past the finish line." Anna Godbersen, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
Geburah Plantation, 1861: in a crumbling estate on the banks of the Mississippi, eight survivors of the nortorious Island 37 Gang wait for the war, or the Pinkerton Detective Agency, to claim them. Their leader, a bizarre charismatic known only as "The Redeemer," has disappeared without a trace, and they are wanted by both the Union and the Confederacy. The hatred they feel for each other is surpassed only by their fear of their many pursuers. Into this hell comes a mysterious force, an "avenging angel" which compels them, one by one, to a reckoning of their many sins.
Canaan's Tongue is based on the crimes of John Murrell, as famous in his day as Jesse James or Al Capone, and the empire he created. It is foremost the story of Virgil Ball, Murrell's reluctant protegee, and of "the Trade," the commerce in stolen slaves which brings him wealth, sexual privilege, and power. Conceived from the start as a company with stock and shareholders, the Trade develops into the first modern American corporation, with a network of influence as widespread as the US government's. Nothing happens in the South without the cooperation of the Trade; even the Civil War, when it arrives, has to ask permission. When Virgil finally decides to free himself from the Redeemer's yoke, he discovers to his horror that the Trade is far more than he had imagined. With explosive tension and drama, John Wray has drawn a dream portrait of America, not of 1861 but of today. It is a work of major literary imagination and importance.
"This much-anticipated second fiction from Wray (The Right Hand of Sleep, 2001) is more an evil take on Tristram Shandy or Mason & Dixon than on Right Hand precursors Graham Greene or Joseph Roth. Genuine and imagined quotes from Mark Twain, narrative passages by assorted quixotic characters (including the occasional declaration from God), diary entries, letters, criminal inquisitions, etc., are brilliantly used by Wray to describe, and partially veil, the real-life atrocities of the infamous mid-19th-century preacher, horse thief and murderous schemer John Murrell, called the 'Redeemer' by Twain in Life on the Mississippi. Set in 1863 and narrated chiefly by Virgil Ball, the right-hand man and eventual assassin of Thaddeus Morelle (Wray's fictional 'Redeemer'), the novel details the final days of a curious handful of holdout cutthroats from Morelle's once much-larger band at Geburah Plantation, La., on the banks of the 'Big Muddy.' As the novel opens, one of the group has been found murdered, and the resulting inquiry unfolds by fits and starts amid an untidy sequence of flashbacks. The dark side of American history has always been best treated by the novel, and Wray does justice to some incredibly rich and challenging material, forging a style that is as loose and wild as its subjects. Steeped in effective 19th-century archaism, yet steely in sustaining the story, the prose is as poetic as it is violent. Agent, the Wylie Agency. (June 1)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A] stunning narrative composed of multiple voices: an epic of violence and greed and inescapable judgment that somewhat resembles — and arguably surpasses in richness and power — Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Wray is the real thing, and Canaan's Tongue is itself a masterpiece." Kirkus Reviews
"The gothic horror of Canaan's Tongue sometimes grows too shrill to proclaim its critique of American culture clearly, but Wray's magnetic hold on our imagination never flags, and that, in the end, is his most effective demonstration of the power that haunts this faithful land." Washington Post
In a crumbling estate on the banks of the Mississippi, eight survivors of the nortorious Island 37 Gang wait for the war, or the Pinkerton Detective Agency, to claim them. Their leader, a bizarre charismatic known only as "The Redeemer," has disappeared without a trace, and they are wanted by both the Union and the Confederacy.
From the acclaimed and prizewinning author of The Right Hand of Sleep (“Brilliant . . . A truly arresting work”The New York Times Book Review), an explosive allegorical novel set on the eve of the Civil War, about a gang of men hunted by both the Union and the Confederacy for dealing in stolen slaves.
Geburah Plantation, 1863: in a crumbling estate on the banks of the Mississippi, eight survivors of the notorious Island 37 Gang wait for the war, or the Pinkerton Detective Agency, to claim them. Their leader, a bizarre charismatic known only as “the Redeemer,” has already been brought to justice, and each day brings the battling armies closer. The hatred these men feel for one another is surpassed only by their fear of their many pursuers. Into this hell comes a mysterious force, an “avenging angel” that compels them, one by one, to a reckoning of their many sins.
Canaans Tongue is rooted in the criminal world of John Murrell, as infamous in his day as Jesse James or Al Capone. It tells the story of his reluctant protégé, Virgil Ball, who derives riches, sexual privilege, and power from the commerce in stolen slaves, known only as “the Trade”and discovers, when he finally decides to free himself from the Redeemers yoke, that the force he is challenging is far more formidable than he imagined. It is as old as the river, as vast as the country itself, and it is with us to this day.
Canaans Tongue is a work of extraordinary narrative and emotional power.
About the Author
John Wray was born in Washington, D.C., and has since lived in Texas, Alaska, Chile, and New York. His first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Timess Best Book of the Year. Wray is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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