Summoning virtually every shade in the American canon (Melville to Cormac McCarthy, Twain to Pynchon) yet possessed of a rollicking, morbid tone all its own, Stephen Wright’s The Amalgamation Polka does for the Civil War era what the author’s previous books did for the late 20th century— reveal a country in which self-invention is violently entwined with self-delusion. Like Wright’s masterpiece, 1994’s Going Native, The Amalgamation Polka is a picaresque, teeming with pirate vagabonds, freedom fighters, and fugitive slaves. All of these reel around one Liberty Fish, the Candide-like son of abolitionists—a New Yorker father and a Southern mother, Roxana, estranged from her plantation-owning family. Wright devotes much of the book’s languid first half to both Roxana’s and Fish’s childhoods, a series of vivid lessons in how the “slavocracy” has broken families and country alike. The rest finds a grown-up Fish fighting “johnnies” and “rebs,” then deserting in order to seek some kind of resolution with his maternal grandparents, vicious wraiths still haunting the crumbling pile of their once baronial Redemption Hall.
Fish is a passive witness, raising his voice against racism but rarely his hand—despite learning that grandfather Asa subjects his slaves to eugenic experimentation. It’s a portrait of antebellum America that feels thoroughly contemporary, even as Wright’s language is otherworldly, a dense froth both highfalutin and hallucinatory. Fish’s father, Thatcher, cautions against using the word nigger: “Listen to how you sound when you voice those syllables . . . To even mouth the word is to shape your countenance into a leering mask of ugliness and hatred.” Wright’s acute attention to the shapes and sounds of words—and the resultant renewal of the familiar stuff of history—will bring a smile to your own lips as it sets your brain on fire.