Don’t call Wesley Stace a dummy. Under the pseudonym John Wesley Harding, he’s recorded over a dozen tuneful and literate rock albums. And under his given name, he’s just penned his second novel, By George, which concerns five generations of the Fishers, an English theater family. Most of those generations practiced ventriloquism. The book follows George Fisher, schoolboy scion and amateur voice-thrower, as he discovers his forebears and his own talents. George Fisher narrates part of the novel. Gorgeous, garrulous Georgeï¿½his grandfather’s dummyï¿½ utters the other half. Actually, don’t call this latter George a dummy either: “Better call me boy than doll (a little girlish), figure (too formal) or dummy (for obvious reasons).”
Every novel is a ventriloquist act, in which the writer throws his or her voice into the mouths of characters and narrators. In some books you can see the author’s lips move; in others the actual speaker seems to vanish altogether. Stace occasionally alerts the reader of his presenceï¿½he’s something of a show-off. But these intrusions don’t sour the spectacle. Some illusions delight even when you know how they’re performed.
Yet compared to his previous work, By George suggests that Stace is making efforts to refine his showmanship, gently effacing himself. His first novel, the comic pastiche Misfortune, was most enjoyable but occasionally laboredï¿½you could see the author straining for Dickensian effect. By George progresses in a more relaxed fashion, especially the sections concerning the live George. As that George says, he “understood that a voice could not logically be thrownï¿½but a Fisher knew that you could persuade people of almost anything. . . . If you could harness that ‘power’ . . . what could you use it for?” So far, Stace is using that power for goodï¿½very good, in fact.