cover image The Amalgamation Polka

The Amalgamation Polka

Stephen Wright, . . Knopf, $24.95 (323pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45117-4

The author of the Vietnam classic Meditation in Green (1983) here channels Liberty Fish, a fictional member of a real, still-prominent upstate New York family, for a gruesome Civil War picaresque à la Candide . Roxana Maury, the daughter of Carolinian slaveholders, turns against the "peculiar institution," disowns her parents, Asa and Ida and marries northerner Thatcher Fish, who shares her abolitionism. Their son Liberty is born in 1844, and his liberal education is enhanced by his parents, and the oddball metaphysicians and charlatans with whom they surround themselves. When war breaks out, Liberty joins up, participates in a series of horrific battles, deserts and travels South to his mother's ancestral home, Redemption Hall. There, he finds his grandfather, Asa, practicing ghastly homicidal experiments with his slaves. As Union forces approach, Asa abandons his invalid wife and more or less kidnaps Liberty, and the two ship aboard a blockade runner, bound for Nassau. Liberty functions more as Gump than protagonist, and ultimately learns Candide-like lessons through similarly unlikely adventures. Roxana's background and the (unconnected) doings of a curious Uncle Potter in Kansas occupy a large portion of the story; the grotesque piles on top of the macabre in depicting slavery; highly humorous banter flows throughout. This book, rich in an appropriately fatuous, overblown period style, is the morbidly comic counterpoint to Doctorow's The March . (Feb. 17)