Monday, November 14, 2005

Freedom's Warriors

This is a review of Stephen Wright's new novel, The Amalgamation Polka, being published by Alfred A. Knopf in February 2006.

If the force we know of as ‘justice’ has any remaining sway in the literary world, February 2006 will see the sun rise on a victorious new dawn for the writer Stephen Wright. With his fourth novel, The Amalgamation Polka, Wright’s first in twelve years, he now clearly stakes a bold claim inside the inner ring of the finest novelists in the English language working today. Furthermore, in the context of his larger oeuvre, this novel proves that Wright is painstakingly building a literary legacy to compete with those of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy.

Over a period of 23 years, in three previous novels, Stephen Wright has written uncompromisingly and astutely about America in meticulously crafted prose and witty, realistic dialogue that reflects the spiritual wanderlust and moral vacuity that afflicts this country. His earlier works – 1983’s Meditations in Green, 1988’s M31: A Family Romance and 1994’s Going Native – are imbued with a quality of fierceness and brutal honesty that is both shocking and appropriate to his ends. Wright’s books are violent without being gratuitous, terrifying without being cheap. They are powerful experiences, and they hit hard.

When he emerged onto the scene in 1983 with Meditations in Green, a shattering fictional rendition of his uncommon experiences as an intelligence analyst in the Vietnam War, his literary career had great promise. Wright was a graduate of the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he had been mentored by the likes of John Cheever and John Irving. Meditations won the Maxwell Perkins Prize for first novels. But his languorous production and penchant for truth and honesty over marketability would serve him poorly in terms of material success.

While his second novel, M31: A Family Romance, was a brilliant dissection of family life and a terrifying perversion of the science fiction genre, it seemed to have been misunderstood by his publishers and critics, and (almost literally) alienated readers. Although M31 was roundly praised by critics, it remains his most obscure novel, though no less accomplished in many ways than his other books.

This set the stage for what must have been the most devastating experience in Wright’s career, the tepid commercial reception of his third novel, Going Native. The combination of Wright’s scathing vision, his maximalist prose, and the general public’s weak stomach for literature that amounts to a hard, penetrating stare into a mirror seemed to create an unbridgeable distance between Wright and a wider readership. Going Native is an astounding novel, a series of increasingly nightmarish stories loosely strung together by the ghostly presence of a psychopathic killer who begins the story as a suburban dad on his back porch, on the verge of a serious breakdown. But the book requires effort, was inadequately marketed, and went largely unnoticed.

Nonetheless, while no one was looking, Wright’s skill and originality only blossomed. Each of Wright’s previous books has been a startlingly unique endeavor and a considerable stride forward. With his first three novels, Wright did nothing less than appropriate three well-worn clich├ęs of modern fiction – the war novel, the sci-fi novel, and the ‘road’ novel – only to totally reinvent them.

Now, twelve years removed from Going Native, this gifted novelist has done it again, this time with the historical novel, specifically of the Civil War era. In The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright has achieved something that is comparable to the finer novels of such giants as Faulkner and Toni Morrison. At the same time, he has delivered a surprisingly redemptive work, an unexpected and welcome addition to his bleak, sometimes shocking catalogue.

The new novel opens in the 1840s and carries through to the end of the Civil War. It tells the story of Liberty Fish, the only son of white abolitionists living in New York State in a time when ‘the dreams of the Republic were dark and troubling.’ (page 5) Raised by parents who have dedicated their lives to the cause of freeing slaves from bondage, Liberty is taught to look upon the institution as unjust and inhumane. He grows accustomed as a child to encounters with complete strangers wandering in and out of his home, staying there while en route to some new and hopefully more benevolent existence.

Liberty’s mother, Roxana, whose lifelong quest Wright describes as ‘the file she had wielded for so many years … rasping away in the gloom at the chain that bound up the land’ (p. 11), was herself raised in South Carolina by slave-holding parents. She reveals the story of her upbringing, her shift in ideological stance and, eventually, her complete separation from her mother and father to her only son in detail while he is still a child. It is a story that haunts Liberty until his destiny puts him in a position to confront this troubling history.

Liberty is born into an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for the concept of freedom, for which he is named. Early on in the novel, he befriends an old former slave named Euclid, who provides him with a stark lesson on the evils of slavery. When the impressionable young Liberty innocently asks Euclid why one of his eyes is missing, the man takes Liberty into his home and lifts up his shirt in a Christ-like presentation, forcing the boy to put his fingers on his scars.

His back was a hideous cross-hatching of hard, ridged flesh, welt upon welt in random disarray, appearing much like cameoed burrowings of some frantic creature permanently trapped beneath the exitless skin. (p. 23)

‘“That’s slavery, boy,” Euclid tells him. ‘“That’s the kingdom come”.’

Incidents such as this, in tandem with the dedication of his mother and father, compel Liberty to sign up for the Union cause almost immediately when the Civil War finally erupts at Fort Sumter. Before long the young man finds himself on the battlefield, where ‘all the sermons and arguments he had heard throughout his short life on the evils of chained servitude had come down to this: a mad charge through a cloud of dense, choking smoke into the very barrels of the slavocracy.’ (p. 178)

Liberty is exposed in short order to the horrors of war, vividly described by Wright without compromise. But when he witnesses these horrors being translated into acts of cowardice and atrocity against innocent people off the battlefield, the cause loses its grip on the ideological young man. Finding himself alone deep in the heart of the seceded country which brought forth his beleaguered mother, who remains unable to shake off the chains of her slave-holding heritage, Liberty detaches himself from the army and sets off in search of the grandparents he has never known.

The remainder of the novel consists of Liberty’s journey to track down and confront his mother’s parents, and his attempts to understand them. What he finds is an elderly couple corrupted beyond salvation by the malevolent effects of owning other human beings – two people capable of cruelties, and the twisted religious justification of same, beyond anything Liberty could have imagined. Liberty’s grandmother is a withered, frail, stubborn woman whose callousness and racism has cost her the love of her children and left her a mere husk of a person, awaiting death with open arms.

His grandfather, Will Maury, a doctor and self-proclaimed philosopher who twists the Christian Bible to support his stunning bigotry, considers the entire black race a ‘perplexing obstacle to the soul’s attainment of the harmonious and the good.’ (p. 236) A thoroughly contemptible man, whose own soul Liberty immediately judges to be ‘in extravagant peril’, he perpetrates vicious experiments against his black slaves, particularly female ones, many of which are his own progeny. Maury’s principal occupation seems to be the ‘cleansing’ of the black race, which he thinks he can bring about through the imagined purity of his own blood and through harmful chemicals employed to ‘end the curse of color by eliminating color entirely.’ (p. 237)

Liberty’s purpose in tracking down his grandparents, while never explicitly rendered, seems to be the pursuit of some kind of reunion of the branches of the family – an amalgamation – and not one of vengeance. Yet as Liberty becomes aware of his ancestor’s despicable attitudes, and of the truly abominable experiments that are his attempt to accomplish a ‘divine plan’ on earth, he perceives that ultimately no reconciliation is possible. In a key passage, he eloquently communicates his opposition to his predecessor for an external observer who has inquired after Liberty’s own racial heritage:

Blood flows across time like water, going where it wants, when it wants, without respect to boundaries geographical, physical or social. Tributaries converge, branch, re-converge in a pattern that may not be so random as it appears. Life, I suppose, and ultimately it makes mongrels of us all. (p.311)

Once again, Stephen Wright has produced an utterly new creation from well-worn fictional terrain. This bold new novel is a thrilling, vivid examination of the old scourge of slavery and the viciousness and absurdity of racial injustice. Because of the forceful statements it makes about the latter, against a backdrop of a horrific war and a once-proud family torn to pieces by hate, The Amalgamation Polka is a timely, important book. Its somewhat optimistic conclusion, while not entirely devoid of bitter irony, seems fresh and judicious.

Wright’s twelve year hiatus has resulted in a novel that both capitalizes on his previous accomplishments and reveals a social consciousness that in his previous books may have borne a closer resemblance to anger.
In fact, in the context of Wright’s previous work, this book is the continuation of a running theme – the close, unflinching scrutiny of America itself. Whereas his three previous novels were all more contemporary, each of them took a hard look at the American culture, and the underlying forces and attitudes that conspire against its grand designs. The Amalgamation Polka continues that probing in an historical context, pursuing it more deeply, all the way back to the foundational concepts of freedom, equality, and yes, liberty.

Stephen Wright obviously is aware of the ongoing importance of not losing sight of the true meaning of these concepts. Yet he is also deeply skeptical of our tendency to trust that these virtuous forces are simply ingrained in the American people and American actions just because of who we are and how we got here.

There are some flaws worth mentioning here, the most significant of which has to do with the final third of the story. After Liberty experiences the nightmare of combat – which Stephen Wright has forcefully proven elsewhere he knows something about – his pursuit of and patient coexistence with his grandparents causes the pace of the novel to lag in places. His obvious inner conflicts over how to handle these figures from his past lead to numerous dialogues with his grandfather, and while his feelings are understandable, some of the conversations seem forced. Additionally, while Wright wisely avoids the stereotypical idioms of the time, particularly in the speech of his black characters, there are moments when the 19th century model for a more lyrical dialect seems a tad superfluous.

Taken as a whole, The Amalgamation Polka is probably not Wright’s most accomplished book. This, however, is a proposition that reflects more on the structural and artistic brilliance of his previous work, Going Native, than it detracts from the strength of this new novel.

At the outset of this review I had the audacity to mention three very famous literary figures from the American canon in connection to Stephen Wright. A person may argue with and even dismiss this association, but to do so that person must be one who has read all of Wright’s previous work, and for the moment this faction seems to be, unfortunately, exclusive. It is worth noting also that nobody felt very strongly about Melville’s work while he was alive. Faulkner was all but broken, with most of his novels out of print, when the Nobel committee figured it out. Cormac McCarthy languished in near-poverty for nearly thirty years before achieving any modicum of worldly success.

It’s been a similar road for Stephen Wright, but this should now change. Critics have long embraced this writer, but have stopped short of adding his name to the catalogue of American masters. It is time to do so, just as it is high time for the reading public – anyone who cares about literature – to catch on and reap the considerable cultural benefits of having such a gifted artist focusing his attention on our country.

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