Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Book Review: Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician

In case the outdated word Negro in the title of Daniel Wallace's novel is as jarring to anyone else as it was to me, I'll start by saying that he's writing about the 1950s, when this word was in common use. Mr. Sebastian and Negro Magician starts out as if it were a story about racial prejudice and hate crime. The "Negro magician" of the title, Henry Walker, is an inept illusionist in a traveling circus. His white rural 1950s audiences love him because his amateurish show reinforces their own delusions of racial superiority.

"For a magician was nothing, really, the same way a cow was nothing. But a Negro magician or, say, a two-headed cow --- now, that was something... Jeremiah felt that Henry's inability to do anything truly amazing... might actually work in his favor, at least with the crowds of the small Southern towns where Jeremiah made his living."
The circus proprietor's calculation turns out to be correct, and Henry packs the crowds into his tent every night, at least until three racist white teens take him on a forced car ride he might not survive.

That's when the first of a long series of unexpected plot twists hits you. Like a masterful magic show, whenever you start to believe you know what's going on in this story, Wallace waves his magic wand and transforms it into something very different.

I had to read through to the very end before I could've told you what I think the book's main themes are. One of them is certainly illusion, "to seem but not to be." Wallace's magical misdirection leads the reader to believe the story is something other than what it is, again and again.

So what is this crazy story about? Is it about the nature of evil? Perhaps.

"For the real magician here was the devil himself, and this was his trick, his plan, same as it always was: to steal from man all that is lovely in the world, and to have it delivered to him via the hand of man himself."
After Henry disappears, his story is reconstructed from the recollections of his friends in the circus; none have the entire picture. Together, they construct a world where it's so difficult to know what's real that a person trying to navigate that world might lose his own identity.

Wallace is also the author of several other novels, including Big Fish, his debut, which was made into an excellent movie by director Tim Burton. Fans of Big Fish will recognize similar elements here; most of Wallace's characters continue to be unusual folks who live at the margins of society, and the world of folk tales and mythology still creeps into our own. Henry Walker's story at first resembles the legend of Delta blues musician Robert Johnson, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for the ability to play the guitar, for example.

Wallace's prose is direct and plain, using basic vocabulary most readers will understand without a dictionary. He writes beautifully within that common language, which helps reinforce the folksy tone of his stories.

This is the second of his books that I've read, and I'd like to see more from him. I enjoy his inventive imagination.

I liked the book very much, but at times the use of multiple narrators was a bit confusing. The story would be running along nicely, then the narrator would interject their own reaction to the story. It was sometimes hard to remember who “I” referred to in a particular instance. I was momentarily distracted when I had to try to remember who had been speaking before the narrator went on about Henry’s life for many pages. This would have been less confusing if each of the characters had a more distinctive voice, but they all speak like Wallace writes.

My other complaint about this book is that it could have used a bit more attention by a good copy-editor. More than once I found myself scratching my head over the meaning of a sentence that had some grammatical flaw, such as an ambiguous pronoun reference. This didn't occur more than a couple of times, but when it did, it distracted from the flow of the story. I read the book in the hardcover edition, so it's possible that these small mechanical problems were fixed in the new paperback edition, which came out last week.



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