Freedom's Warriors

Book cover
The Amalgamation Polkaby Stephen Wright

Knopf. 304p $24.95


There is a master of American letters working in our midst today of whom not many readers are aware. For more than 23 years, the novelist Stephen Wright has written uncompromisingly and astutely about America in meticulously crafted prose and witty, realistic dialogue that reflects the spiritual wanderlust and moral vacuity afflicting this country. Unfortunately, though critically lauded, Wright has never been embraced by the general reading public.

His earlier novels - Meditations in Green (1983), M31: A Family Romance (1988) and the remarkable Going Native (1994) - are all imbued with the qualities of fierceness and brutal honesty. Wright’s books are violent without being gratuitous, terrifying without being cheap. They hit hard.

Now, after 12 years, this gifted novelist has resurfaced with a vengeance, this time confronting the Civil War era. The dazzling, vigorous prose in this novel is the successful result of a determined pursuit of the writer’s art. In The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright has achieved something equal to the finer novels of such literary titans as Herman Melville, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.

The new novel tells the story of Liberty Fish, the only son of white abolitionists living in New York in a time when the dreams of the Republic were dark and troubling. Raised by parents who have dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom, Liberty is taught to look upon slavery as unjust and inhumane. He grows accustomed to encounters with complete strangers who wander in and out of his home on their travels through the Underground Railroad.

Liberty’s mother, Roxana, was herself raised in South Carolina by slave-holding parents. She relates the story of her upbringing and her eventual separation from her mother and father in detail while he is still a child. The story haunts Liberty until his destiny puts him in a position to confront this troubling history.

Compelled by his youthful witnessing of his parents’ activism and his own colorful experiences with a gallery of offbeat characters, Liberty signs up for the Union cause almost immediately when the Civil War finally erupts. Before long the young man finds himself on the battlefield, where all the sermons and arguments he had heard throughout his short life on the evils of chained servitude had come down to this: a mad charge through a cloud of dense, choking smoke into the very barrels of the slavocracy.

Liberty is exposed quickly to the horrors of war, described by Wright vividly and without compromise. But when he sees these horrors being translated into acts of atrocity against innocent noncombatants, the cause loses its hold on him. Finding himself deep in the heart of the besieged South, Liberty deserts the army and sets off in search of the grandparents he has never known.

The remainder of the novel tells of Liberty’s journey to locate and confront his mother’s parents. What he finds is an elderly couple corrupted beyond salvation.

Liberty’s grandmother is a withered, frail, stubborn woman whose callousness and racism have cost her the love of her children and left her a mere husk of a human being. His grandfather, Will Maury, a doctor and self-proclaimed philosopher who twists the Christian Bible to support his stunning bigotry, considers the entire black race a perplexing obstacle to the soul’s attainment of the harmonious and the good. He perpetrates vicious experiments against his black slaves, many of whom are his own offspring.

Liberty’s purpose in seeking his grandparents seems to be to orchestrate a reunion of the branches of his familyan amalgamation. Yet as Liberty becomes aware of his grandfather’s despicable attitudes and his deplorable attempts to accomplish a divine plan on earth, he realizes that ultimately no reconciliation is possible. In a key passage, he eloquently communicates his fundamental difference with his grandfather to an outside observer who has inquired after Liberty’s own racial heritage:

Blood flows across time like water, going where it wants, when it wants, without respect to boundaries geographical, physical or social. Tributaries converge, branch, re-converge in a pattern that may not be so random as it appears. Life, I suppose, and ultimately it makes mongrels of us all.

This bold novel is a startling, vivid examination of the scourge of slavery and the lingering viciousness and absurdity of racial injustice. Wright’s previous novels, all set in contemporary times, examine American culture and the underlying forces and attitudes that conspire against its grand designs. The Amalgamation Polka extends that examination in a historical context, pursuing it further, all the way back to the foundational concepts of freedom, equality and, yes, liberty.

There are some flaws. After Liberty experiences the nightmare of combat, his pursuit of and patient coexistence with his grandparents slows the pace of the novel at times. His obvious conflict over how to handle his relations leads to numerous long dialogues with his grandfather, some of which seem forced. And some readers may tire of Wright’s extensive, fluid passages filled with effusive and sometimes arcane turns of phrase, fashioned after a 19th-century template.

Yet these are mere quibbles, and the rewards this novel offers to readers thirsting for a more emotionally potent and emphatically relevant brand of fiction far outweigh them. As far and as high as this book dares to reach, some shortcomings seem inevitable, but Wright has taken on old questions with bold language and a powerfully harnessed literary gift. It is time for the reading public to reap the considerable cultural benefits of having such a talented artist focusing his attention on our country.

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