Not to gainsay W. E. B. Du Bois's prescience, but it could be said that his famous 1904 claim—"the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line"—was hardly a great feat of prognostication. After all, race had unremittingly perplexed the nation for the previous hundred years, and, given the fervor still percolating in the long wake of the Civil War, there was good reason to believe it would continue to do so.

Stephen Wright's new novel, The Amalgamation Polka, is a curious, at times confounding treatment of how the "color-line" bent and broke in the especially fraught decades leading up to and including the Civil War. To conjure some sense of the stakes for both fervent antislavers and their opposite numbers in the South, Wright deploys as an epigraph a quote from a sermon by the Reverend E. S. Best of Milford, Massachusetts, who posits one abolitionist remedy for racial contention: "This blending of the two races (Caucasian and African) by amalgamation is just what is needed for the perfection of both. You will then have the highest, noblest, and most God-like species of humanity. Such a race will constitute the real people of America." Thus the stage is set for a tale in which passions about race, rather than the mere economics and politics of slavery, constitute the wellspring from which America's bloodiest conflict arises.

Wright, a Vietnam veteran who attended the US Army Intelligence School, has long been attracted to mayhem—each of his three previous novels features protracted episodes of serrated, surreal violence. The first, Meditations in Green, vividly chronicles the mental decomposition of a soldier during and after that war. In M31: A Family Romance, incest and murder barely register as unusual in Wright's portrayal of a bizarre household (the parents are UFO lecture-circuit stars who claim to be descendants of aliens). And Wright's last novel, Going Native, tracks a chameleon-like psychopath as he takes to the road, morphing and killing his way across an America depicted as luridly carnivalesque. Slavery, religious fanaticism, and internecine warfare, then, fit squarely within Wright's bleak vision of this country as a place overripe with the grotesque, its citizens ever teetering on the brink of savagery.

In The Amalgamation Polka, Wright's geographic Everyman is Liberty Fish, whose father, Thatcher, hails from Vermont and whose mother, Roxana, was raised on a large plantation in South Carolina. Born in upstate New York to this pair of ardent abolitionists in 1844, the boy grows up well within infection range of the national fever. Roxana fled her family shortly after her father killed a rebellious slave and posted his head on a stake at the crossroads. She is reduced to fitful tears whenever a wrathful letter arrives from Redemption Hall, her family's ancestral home. Liberty's uncle Potter boasts of taking a scalp from a "puke" (a pro-slaver) defending "amalgamators" in Kansas. And his crusading father brings steely, exacting fervor to bear in his beliefs. When some boys shout at Liberty, "Go back to your nigger hotel!" Thatcher imparts to his son a lesson in lingual dynamics, insisting that he pronounce the slur aloud repeatedly: "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." More intense instruction is given by Euclid, the family retainer who resides in the root cellar. He responds to one of Liberty's inquiries simply by removing his shirt: "His back was a hideous cross-hatching of hard, ridged flesh, welt upon welt in random disarray, appearing much like the cameoed burrowings of some frantic creature permanently trapped beneath the exitless skin. ‘Touch it,' he commanded."

Wright relays all this in an anachronistic prose style that skirts the edge of parody—the dialogue is particularly arch—while still striking singularly Jamesian notes of perceptual clarity and psychological depth. Roxana's profound melancholy and emotional vicissitudes are rendered in a diction at once both quaint and kinetic: "The chords of her desires seemed far, far out of reach, and she felt hopeless, lost, utterly alone. The sun was an egg, the moon a bone, and she couldn't rid her mind of the singsong facts of that obvious perception. Such straw her head was stuffed with. But then, inexplicably, the color of her mood would flare into an afternoon's, sometimes a whole day's, conviction of supreme imperishability." Indeed, many of the novel's characters are gifted with mental atmospheres almost comically overelegant and rarefied. Traveling with his father on the Erie Canal, the barely adolescent Liberty could be channeling Walter Pater when he is said to understand "that the objects of the world, every blade of corn, every sullen rock, every clod of earth flicked into the air by a mule's hoof, was, in actuality, a disclosure of feeling, the physical elements of the visible world each marking a site where emotion stopped, crystallized and was made manifest in three-dimensional form."

In previous books, Wright has proven himself a master of intricate metaphor and the deftly cantilevered sentence—but all in the service of a very contemporary, often drug-soaked, fictional world populated by porn magnates, flying saucer charlatans, and, say, a wedding chapel's lesbian employees who tattoo one another's asses as a prelude to sex. That he has put his stylistic intelligence to profitable work in an altogether different medium—the vocabulary, intonation, and phraseology of the nineteenth-century novel—is impressive enough; that he has done so to describe canal boat captains, plantation masters, and Union Army grunts testifies to an even more significant redirection of sensibility—one very much along the lines of Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.

Having infiltrated an outdated expressive mode with a style weaned on neon and nightmare, Wright skillfully defamiliarizes the antebellum era and, more crucially, the war itself. When Liberty at last finds himself in a blue coat, marching into battle, we are not in the hands of Shelby Foote, or E. L. Doctorow for that matter. Combat's essentially hallucinatory nature (so lushly dramatized in Meditations in Green, in which one soldier is involuntarily fed LSD for a week) is retooled here for the no less dizzying spectacle of bayonet charges and musket fire. Ordered to advance in his first battle, the young man recalls his mother's exhortation to "think of the bondsman. . . . Think of their stooped toil, their martyred agony." But at this terrible brink the words are "cold and distant." Saving the Union and ending slavery come down to "a mad charge through clouds of dense, choking smoke," and pain, irreducible pain: "Liberty took half a dozen steps before being accosted by the hideous shrieks of a wounded soldier who looked to be no more than twelve years old. He was missing both legs at the hips. . . . His incessant screams prompted the thought that if the very walls of hell were cracked open with a chisel this was the noise the fiery rock itself would emit."

In Georgia, after three years of war, Liberty abandons his regiment and goes in search of his mother's family, the aristocratic Maurys. (Not long after the outbreak of hostilities, his mother died in a carriage accident just after having received a letter from her parents accusing her of treason.) When the young man finally arrives at Redemption Hall on the Carolina coast, he discovers his grandmother is a withered invalid, perfectly capable of slicing open a slave's hand as punishment for a poorly cooked meal, and his grandfather is venturing "a physics of a boldly imaginative bent"—namely, attempting by forced crossbreeding to "end the curse of color by eliminating color entirely." To this end the old man has impregnated slaves, and he expects Liberty to father a child by a mixed-blood daughter. Constituting the last third of the novel, the denouement at the crumbling plantation is Grand Guignol with a fetishistic twist: Grandfather Maury, who has lost three sons to the war, keeps this daughter (dubbed Slavery) in a room painted dazzling white, surrounded by candles and "wrapped in immaculate muslin, though of insufficient quantity to obscure wholly the naked body beneath." "Your lunacy," Liberty deadpans upon viewing the scene, "exceeds the bounds of definition." Amalgamation, indeed.

Liberty eventually returns home, visits his mother's grave, and in a turn fit for a sentimental novel by Stowe, is reunited with Euclid, the former slave. The two repair to the root cellar, where Euclid has constructed a miniature Erie Canal and a boat christened the Roxana, which they launch toward Niagara Falls, a sight Liberty's mother had always wanted to see. At such moments (and there are several throughout the novel), Wright's tale tilts uncertainly. The tonal shifts required to move from poetic meditation to riverboat derring-do, from plantation house of horrors to the last sentence—Liberty's thought as he falls asleep, "It's America, and everything was going to be fine"—can be jarring, sometimes in ways that suggest the author's satiric comment, but at other times seeming easily satirizable themselves. Wright's formal experiment here is a heady, adventurous one—to undermine as well as pay homage to a discarded form. He does this while expertly sounding a theme that has lost none of its timeliness, none of its ache. In The Amalgamation Polka, Wright evokes another kind of "mixing"—the intertwined dance of moral intellect and emotion: the way unreasoned ardor or anger always finds its beautiful lie. Of course such a step has long been performed on the color-line, and it is a rug we will no doubt be cutting for decades to come.

Albert Mobilio is the fiction editor of Bookforum.

 
     
     
 
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THE AMALGAMATION POLKA BY STEPHEN WRIGHT. NEW YORK: KNOPF. 304 PAGES. $25. BUY NOW