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The Amalgamation Polka Hardcover – February 14, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Is it a curse or a blessing that the work of idiosyncratically original writers prompts the most divisive reviews? There's no preordained slot for Steven Wright (Going Native; Meditations in Green), so his fictions have to be read with an open mind and, perhaps, a predisposition for his "dark, hallucinatory world" (New York Times). The main point of dissension centers on whether Wright has balanced the strains of parody and the grotesque carefully enough. Critics also disagree about whether the author's verbal prowess, sometimes so powerful, overwhelms the story. In the end, with some critics' accolades set against others' criticisms, most critics are impressed enough by the author's accomplishment to warrant it a success.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (February 14, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067945117X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679451174
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,106,391 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
With this opening sentence, the reader knows immediately that this Civil War novel is no Gone With the Wind. Dense, suggestive, and impressionistic in style, it focuses on the Fish family--Thatcher Fish, a traveling preacher and abolitionist from Delphi, New York; his wife Roxana, formerly of Redemption Hall in Charleston, South Carolina; and their son Liberty, around whom most of the action revolves. Dividing the novel into three parts, the author first shows Liberty as a child absorbing his parents' values, sometimes being ostracized by other children, and, in his loneliness, finding comfort with Euclid, an escaped slave who lives in the family's root cellar.

Wright is particularly effective in revealing life from the point of view of Liberty, a child whose house is an "enchanted domain," filled with hidden passageways, sliding panels, floor traps, and peepholes, all part of "the train Mother told me about, that runs under the ground." Moving back and forth through Liberty's childhood and that of his mother, the narrative is filled with extravagant descriptions and quirky characters--Uncle Potter, who is always seeking excitement; Ma'am L'Orange, Liberty's mad teacher; Arthur Fife, aged 146, a former pirate who lives in a hole in the ground; Captain Erastus Whelkington of the canal boat Croesus; and Stumpy, the hoggee, a child who keeps the mules moving along the towpath of the Erie Canal.

Liberty's enlistment in the Union army when he is sixteen begins the second part of the book, filled with the carnage of battle, the devastating accidents of fate, and the horrors of hand-to-hand combat. Following "Uncle Billy" Sherman, Liberty joins Major Pickles, who travels with his own casket (filled with whiskey).
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Format: Hardcover

Came home 2 weeks ago and this book was between my doors. I didn't order any books this week, I thought to myself. I opened it and immediately thought it was a book by the comedian of the same name. This will at least be amusing, I thought. But the insert provided from the New York Times book review caught my eye and tweaked my curiosity. Who is this guy?

First let me say that for anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, this book will do one of two thing for you: it will inspire you to be the best possible writer you can be or it will totally discourage you from ever attempting to bring pen to paper. How the hell can anyone top this? Every paragraph is a carefully crafted work of art unto itself. His mastery of the English language simply defies description.

The tale of Liberty Fish's coming of age in the time of the Civil War jumps off the page in a three-dimensional sensory onslaught that simply transcends the written word. Of contemporary fiction writers, only Anne Rice comes close; and she isn't even in this gentleman's league. How Mr. Wright breathes life and complexity into so many characters within the confines of a 300-page codex is something I'm sure that even he can't rationally break down and explain to the most cerebral listener. This man is the buried treasure for any reader looking to be entertained and inspired while vicariously living his characters' experiences. You feel the emotion, the happiness, the pain. You see and smell and hear and feel all of it. Not a word wasted.

It's not so much where the book takes you as how it arrives there. I was reading it at a local pub where the patrons routinely share new books and authors with each other when I was asked about "The Amalgamation Polka".
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Pro-slavery Americans used the term amalgamation polka to describe what they saw as the inevitable mixing of the white and black races, should abolition occur. Using this as a backdrop, Wright shows Liberty Fish growing up in an Abolitionist household in upstate New York, when amalgamation fears were common. Then, he shows Liberty fighting for the North at Antietam and foraging with Sherman's army, before joining his grandfather, Asa, in the Carolinas. Asa is a violent and sadistic slaveholder and a literal amalgamist, who has an insane and incestuous vision of eliminating Africans from America.

Unfortunately, the stories of these two characters misfire in combination, as the cipher-like Liberty interacts with his Freddy Krueger-like grandfather. Certainly, Wright creates a plausible coming-of-age narrative about Liberty and his three years of military service during the Civil War. But then, the crazed Asa appears and we see a warped and sadistic Southerner trying to cope with his culture and slavery, as well as his anger at his daughter. In a seminar, a professor might tease out the connections. But as a reading experience, Wright seems to seek resolution of Liberty's story with an implausible and gothic tale. The final third of this book certainly has vivid characters. But it felt unconvincing as Wright desperately sought to find the end of his story.

Nonetheless, Wright's writing is often terrific and even Faulknerian at the end of some chapters. Liberty fighting in the Battle of Antietam (Pages 171-191) is excellent. Still, the story seems arbitrary and bizarre when it's driven by Asa. And Liberty, the protagonist, is as flat as a slogan.
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