The strangeness begins with the first sentence—“The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud”—and carries on right through to a more appealing but equally eccentric ending. I wish I could say that the oddity evolves, that it gathers significance or deepens into mystery or coasts into clarifying catharsis, but Stephen Wright’s The Amalgamation Polka is stubbornly, steadily peculiar—and consistently brilliant. If you’re eager to read an entire novel in a state of baffled amazement, this should do it for you.
“The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud”—at first we’re told that they could be “refugees from a traveling circus,” but eventually it becomes clear that they’re actually drunken men (“porcelain pitchers of ripe applejack passing freely from hand to unwashed hand”), probably soldiers, dressed up in women’s clothes looted, like the ripe applejack, from a burning house. Suddenly a figure appears, running—“She was young and barefoot and clothed in woolen rags”—and the bearded ladies set off in riotous pursuit, “a spectacle of hermaphroditic frenzy.” Rape ensues.
This local disturbance is a symptom of the national derangement, circa 1865: the convulsive end to slavery and civil war. The girl is black, slave or ex-slave, the “ladies” are white (when they unbutton the “filthy breeches” beneath their finery, we catch sight of “their pink manhood, carelessly exposed”). We never meet the bearded ladies again, nor their unfortunate victim. This brutal coupling of the races is merely our surreal and painful introduction to the topic at hand; this is the amalgamation polka as violent nightmare.
Turn the page, and a birth is announced: Liberty Fish, our hero, coming into this world—upstate New York, to be precise—in the fall of 1844. Liberty’s mother, Roxana, was raised on a great plantation in South Carolina, a past she has renounced because of her strenuous moral objection to slavery; Liberty’s father is a Northerner and, like his wife, a fervent abolitionist. As a boy, Liberty is mystified by unexplained comings and goings: His house is a stop on the underground railroad.
If young Liberty were a charming rogue (in fact, he’s disappointingly virtuous), The Amalgamation Polka could be classified as a picaresque narrative: It tells his story—and flashes back to Roxana’s—through a succession of discrete episodes. It rambles like a shaggy-dog story, entertaining, even dazzling, but not especially urgent—until Liberty enlists, age 16, and finds himself, a year later, in the thick of “a mad charge through clouds of dense, choking smoke into the very barrels of the slavocracy.” It’s the battle of Antietam, the deadliest day of the war, and Mr. Wright does a virtuoso job with it. In the Goya landscape of the spent battlefield, Liberty sleeps at last, “slumped to earth beneath a ragged apple tree, its crop picked clean by iron hands.”
Turn the page, and Liberty is tromping down a red, dusty road in Georgia, a foot soldier in Sherman’s march to the sea. Dispatched on a foraging expedition, he gets a taste of the ruin that the Union Army will inflict on civilians and simply walks away, a deserter, bound for Redemption Hall, his grandparents’ South Carolina plantation. When he arrives, this peculiar novel takes another bizarre turn, hijacked by Liberty’s insane grandfather, who’s obsessed with do-it-yourself eugenics and crackpot schemes to eradicate the “disease of racial differentiation,” to “end the curse of color by eliminating color entirely.”
Mr. Wright knows where he’s going with this theme: In his devious way, he’s steering Liberty to the conclusion that “Life … makes mongrels of us all”—a good thing, as far as Liberty is concerned, and a fine moral to a tale that wanders so promiscuously.
More than 20 years ago, in an otherwise glowing review of Mr. Wright’s debut novel, the late Walter Kendrick complained that the “superheated prose often gets wearisome.” Well … Mr. Wright’s prose is still superheated, and though I only rarely found it wearisome, I can easily imagine readers with a low tolerance for verbal pyrotechnics closing the book for good after a one-sentence dose like this, from an interlude aboard a packet floating along the Erie Canal:
“Someone had produced a fiddle around which soon congregated a makeshift chorus of willing singers, obscure figures in black cutout against the last fading light, and then the familiar strains of ‘Old Folks at Home’ rose up against the night in fluidly adroit, unforgettable harmony and it was possible to believe that the world and the things of the world were connected by a melody of their own, persistent though often indistinct, traces of which could be heard lurking even beneath the sentimental cadences of a popular tune of the day, and as the final note dissolved into pure sustained silence, all noise and motion beyond the boat, the toiling mules, seemed to cease—even inanimate objects held their breaths—and into that becalmed interval glided, silent as a shade, the long graceful packet and its entranced human cargo, as through a mystic cavern hewn from nature’s own stuff, and then the bow hit the strings (the opening bars to ‘Turkey in the Straw’) and the spell was broken, and time fell back onto the travelers’ shoulders like a cloak spun of material so gorgeously fine you didn’t even realize it was wearing you until it had been briefly whisked away.”
Inspired gibberish, I’m afraid.
Mostly, though, Mr. Wright piles on the metaphor and dances through elaborate rhetorical effects, adding occasional archaic flourishes, all without losing track of his meaning. He also endows Liberty’s entire family with a frightening power of eloquence. (When he’s getting ready to enlist, for example, 16-year-old Liberty protests that every tear his mother sheds “is a drop of scalding oil upon my own skin.”) The ever-changing cast of incidental characters—this is an entire novel of cameo appearances—adds the twang of accent and colloquialism to an already rich mix.
Mr. Wright’s fourth novel, The Amalgamation Polka arrives after a 12-year silence and seems likely to meet the same fate as the preceding three: wild enthusiasm from the critics, wild enthusiasm from a truly tiny band of readers, then another stretch of blank neglect. His first book, Meditations in Green (1983) is one of our best novels about Vietnam; his second, M31: A Family Romance (1988) examines the American family through the lens of U.F.O. obsession; his third, Going Native (1994) tracks a serial killer across the continent. It’s puzzling to think that this lavishly talented writer, so powerfully focused on our national identity, can’t seem to make a lasting impression.
The new novel resounds with echoes of Melville, Twain and Faulkner—it’s the pulse of his yearning: Stephen Wright longs to join their company. And though he’s aiming again at the bull’s eye—his target a problem America’s bloodiest war failed to solve—The Amalgamation Polka scatters wide of the mark.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.