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The Amalgamation Polkaby Stephen Wright
Synopses & Reviews
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 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.
"The author of the Vietnam classic Meditation in Green (1983) here channels Liberty Fish, a fictional member of a real, still-prominent upstate New York family, for a gruesome Civil War picaresque à la Candide. Roxana Maury, the daughter of Carolinian slaveholders, turns against the "peculiar institution," disowns her parents, Asa and Ida and marries northerner Thatcher Fish, who shares her abolitionism. Their son Liberty is born in 1844, and his liberal education is enhanced by his parents, and the oddball metaphysicians and charlatans with whom they surround themselves. When war breaks out, Liberty joins up, participates in a series of horrific battles, deserts and travels South to his mother's ancestral home, Redemption Hall. There, he finds his grandfather, Asa, practicing ghastly homicidal experiments with his slaves. As Union forces approach, Asa abandons his invalid wife and more or less kidnaps Liberty, and the two ship aboard a blockade runner, bound for Nassau. Liberty functions more as Gump than protagonist, and ultimately learns Candide-like lessons through similarly unlikely adventures. Roxana's background and the (unconnected) doings of a curious Uncle Potter in Kansas occupy a large portion of the story; the grotesque piles on top of the macabre in depicting slavery; highly humorous banter flows throughout. This book, rich in an appropriately fatuous, overblown period style, is the morbidly comic counterpoint to Doctorow's The March." Publishers Weekly Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"The Civil War, that most American of cataclysms, held an almost mystical fascination for writers even before Grant and Lee reached their gentlemen's agreement at Appomattox. To judge from such recent entries as 'The Known World,' 'Cold Mountain' and 'The March,' there is still no more effective way to signal that you have something weighty to say about this country than to locate your narrative in... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Civil War-era America. Stephen Wright, the acclaimed author of 'Meditations in Green,' has chosen to do exactly that in his new novel, 'The Amalgamation Polka.' Essentially a coming-of-age story, the book follows the portentously named Liberty Fish, a kind of abolitionist Candide, from his boyhood as the child of Underground Railroad activists in upstate New York, through an extremely bloody tour of duty as a Union soldier in Georgia and the Carolinas and eventually to a Caribbean island, with all sorts of adventures, both expected and improbable, along the way. Liberty's mother was born and raised on a grand old cotton-and-bullwhip plantation near Charleston, S.C., and his childhood has been marked as much by his mother's silences regarding her past as by his father's high-toned rants against the evils of slavery. When the tides of war deposit Liberty near the old family estate, he decides to drop out of the army and pay his long-lost grandparents a visit. At this point the novel, which has so far been relatively carefree, tilts abruptly into full-fledged Grand Guignol. What Liberty discovers at 'Redemption Hall' is a caricature of plantation life, both more violent and more preposterous than he — or, for that matter, the reader — could have expected. Liberty's grandmother, a hate-worn, ghostlike invalid, slashes her cook's palm open with a carving knife for undercooking the turnips; his grandfather keeps his own half-breed daughters locked up for breeding purposes, with himself — and, in due time, his grandson — as the sire. Life on the ole plantation, it turns out, was not so much a tragedy (or even a Margaret Mitchell-style melodrama) as a mean-spirited bedroom farce. Wright is nothing if not ambitious, and the energy with which he throws himself into this world — which bears only a passing resemblance to 19th-century America — is a wonder to behold. The novel overflows with charlatans, whores, preachers, soldiers-of-fortune, madmen and even a handful of pirates, all of them declaiming, at the tops of their lungs, in language that often borders on free verse. The prose is unapologetically purple. Consider this exchange, in which Liberty first meets his slave-buggering grandfather: '"Are you Asa Maury?" '"What's in a name?" He regarded his visitor with detached bemusement. ... '"Have I actually traveled these hundreds of miles, risking injury, imprisonment or worse, to engage in a mere verbal joust?" '"Supposing I were the gentleman you take me for, what would you want of me?" '"I thought, unwisely perhaps, that simple courtesy required this visit, just as simple human curiosity and the unsparing needs of the soul to comprehend its own origins demanded it. I expected, after absorbing a lifetime of tales about the prodigious man, to meet finally face-to-face the legend himself, my maternal grandfather. And frankly, sir, I presumed the reception would be somewhat more enthusiastic than that provided."' It's standard practice, of course, for the novelist, even in completely naturalistic fiction, to allow characters a higher level of articulateness than they might plausibly possess; sometimes it's even necessary. Wright's characters, however, sound less like hyper-articulate abolitionists and yeomen than like standup comedians parodying the Royal House of Windsor. Here's another example, in which Liberty, still a boy in his teens, explains to a 12-year-old slave girl named Tempie that she's been set free: '"Tell me, how long have you been locked up like this?" '"Since before the war come." '"Well, Tempie, I'm here to inform you that the house of bondage is thoroughly ablaze from cellar to ridgepole. The old haunted manse is coming down at last." He caught her glancing anxiously upward, scanning the ceiling for tendrils of flame. "No, no," he tried to explain, "not this house. The one I'm referring to is more of a verbal representation really, a sort of mental picture made up of words which aren't real but which stand for something that is real, in this case the entire institution of slavery which, of course, is not exactly a house either."' The term for art that trades in extremes of taste and plausibility is 'camp.' 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.' John Wray is the author of 'Canaan's Tongue.'" Reviewed by John Wray, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A]n unusually captivating modernist novel....Although it's tempting to label the story Faulknerian for its setting and precise, if playful, prose, Liberty's resemblance to Huck Finn is too strong to ignore. Highly recommended." Brendan Driscoll, Booklist (Starred Review)
"[The Amalgamation Polka] offers something rare in historical novels, the vertiginous sensation of a tilt forward into the unknown. This, after all, is what history feels like to the people who live through it, the ones with no idea what will happen next and an uncertain grasp on who the good guys will turn out to be. It feels like the world as you know it, dissolving and re-forming into an unimaginable and unnavigable new configuration. It feels like now." Laura Miller, New York Times Book Review
"A disappointing misstep by a versatile writer." Kirkus Reviews
"The Amalgamation Polka works brilliantly because Wright appears to have created this story...as someone living through, and struggling against, this moment in history." Boston Globe
"Wright's work surpasses 'good book' and has all the elements of enduring art: a high purpose, a masterful use of language, engrossing conflict, catharsis." San Diego Union-Tribune
"The Amalgamation Polka is daring, challenging work. It dances, with considerable vigor, to a grimly jaunty beat distinctly its own." Seattle Times
"As usual, [Wright] writes in beautiful, baroque sentences that circle around to deliver their sense and often a dose of comedy, as well." Dallas Morning News
Born in 1844 in bucolic upstate New York, Liberty Fish is the child of fervent abolitionists as well as the grandson of Carolina slaveholders even more dedicated to their cause-a conflict that ultimately costs his mother her life and comples Liberty, in hopes of reconciling the familial disunion, to escape from the cauldron of war into a bedlam more distubing yet. Rich in characters heartbreaking and bloodcurdling, comic and horrific this books 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 Kansas to the fulfillment of the
From a "star of the first magnitude" ("The Washington Post Book World") comes a Civil War novel like no other: heartbreaking and bloodcurdling, comic and horrific, and shot through with politics and dreams.
About the Author
Stephen Wright was educated at the U.S. Army Intelligence School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has taught at Princeton University, Brown University, and, most recently, The New School. He lives in New York City.
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