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
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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.