Thursday, June 15, 2006

Crazy town

In the Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright paints mid-19th century America as an insane asylum. It is a violent world where people are ready to scrap for nearly any reason. The violent abuse of slaves and the war itself seem merely ends of a continuum of violence rather than aberrations. We are treated to Bloody Kansas, crazed ship captains, overseers, nasty neighbors and of course the war. Race relations are also central in the tale, which makes sense as the main character, Liberty, has abolitionists for parents, and slave holding plantation owners for grandparents. The author at times seems ambivalent over the superiority of our own time, he talks about switching chattel slavery for wage slavery and the end of any freedom at all. Or at least his plantation owning character says so.

The book reminds me of a John Barth novel with absurdist humor and vivid descripton. This is the sort of writing where the language and atmosphere triumph over plot. The plot is essentially Liberty finding his place in the nation while he tours it. It ends happily with Liberty back in the arms of the family. If you go in for gorgeous language and period writing, then you will like it.

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