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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This much-anticipated second fiction from Wray (The Right Hand of Sleep, 2001) is more an evil take on Tristram Shandy or Mason & Dixon than on Right Hand precursors Graham Greene or Joseph Roth. Genuine and imagined quotes from Mark Twain, narrative passages by assorted quixotic characters (including the occasional declaration from God), diary entries, letters, criminal inquisitions, etc., are brilliantly used by Wray to describe, and partially veil, the real-life atrocities of the infamous mid–19th-century preacher, horse thief and murderous schemer John Murrell, called the "Redeemer" by Twain in Life on the Mississippi. Set in 1863 and narrated chiefly by Virgil Ball, the right-hand man and eventual assassin of Thaddeus Morelle (Wray's fictional "Redeemer"), the novel details the final days of a curious handful of holdout cutthroats from Morelle's once much-larger band at Geburah Plantation, La., on the banks of the "Big Muddy." As the novel opens, one of the group has been found murdered, and the resulting inquiry unfolds by fits and starts amid an untidy sequence of flashbacks. The dark side of American history has always been best treated by the novel, and Wray does justice to some incredibly rich and challenging material, forging a style that is as loose and wild as its subjects. Steeped in effective 19th-century archaism, yet steely in sustaining the story, the prose is as poetic as it is violent.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the prizewinning author of The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) comes a darkly allegorical novel set on the eve of the Civil War. John Murrell, the Redeemer, a historical figure mentioned in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, is a charismatic land pirate posing as an itinerant preacher. With a bizarre gang of accomplices, he resells stolen slaves. What began as the "Trade" becomes much more degenerate. Murrell divines the weakness of each of his gang members and uses it to control and corrupt them, even from the grave. As war breaks out, the gang is hunted by both the Union and Confederate armies and holes up on crumbling Geburah Plantation on the banks of the Mississippi. One by one, the members of the Trade begin to die in strange ways while waiting for the Redeemer to return. Wray tells a powerfully dark story that incorporates Southern culture and the wisdom of the kabbalah with just a touch of the occult. Elizabeth Dickie
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Imagine a blend of Faulkner and Mark Twain, with a twist of Dickens' Pickwick Papers, and you will have a good idea of the feel that the writer creates in painting a vivid group portrait of a motley group of rogues - all toiling under the dubious leadership of "The Redeemer." Set before and during the Civil War, the narrative follows the misadventures of a gang of horse thieves and slave traders. Based on the real historical character, John Murrell and his disciples, Wray's tale shines a light on the dark underbelly of American life on the Mississippi as the sun was setting on the era of slavery. The introduction of elements of Jewish Kabbalah add an aura of mysticism to the proceedings.
Let me share two brief excerpts to allow you to taste Wray's original and wry literary style. In this portion of the story, the protagonist, Virgil Ball, is about to open the hatch on the hold of a slave ship that is transporting scores of slaves on the Mississippi River:
"When the bolt slid open the sound stopped short, leaving a sudden vacancy in the air, as though a piano-wire had snapped. A humid silence met me as I raised the hatch, broken only by a rasping - or a wheezing, better said - in the far corner of the hold. The smell of piss and sweat and excrement seized me by the throat and commenced to wring the breath out of me slowly. A step-ladder extended two rungs downward, perhaps three, before vanishing into darkness. The stench and the dampness and a steady tightening of my bowels, as though in anticipation of a blow, were all there was to tell me I was being watched by two-score pair of eyes." (Page 99)
This final passage sets the scene for a climactic encounter with a prisoner the gang has captured and immured in the basement of their lair:
"My last day at Geburah begins softly, Virgil says. I've been sitting in the lampless parlor half the night when the house-door sighs open, delicate as hackled lace. A moment later Parson flutters by. He glances into the parlor as he passes, shading his eyes, but he fails to see me slumped over in the dark. He moves down the hall. The cellar door opens, then shuts, and I draw in a breath. I rise from the settee more carefully than a spinster. A draft curls about my shins, leafy with the smell of coming rain. Something is going to happen. It sits like a clot of river-bottom in my throat.
Parson is quiet as dust on the cellar steps but he can't keep them from creaking subtly as he descends. His oversight has given me an advantage over him, the first in our long acquaintance, and I'm determined not to let it pass. I steal lightly down the hall. He's left the cellar door unlatched. I reach the top of the steps just as he gets to the bottom.
To go any further would be to lose straight-away, so I crouch at the top of the steps and bide. I see nothing but the rough pine boards leading down into the blackness -; I hear nothing but my own unsteady breathing. I've just begin to wonder whether Parson hasn't vanished through some fissure in the earth when a voice comes out of the gloom, measured and precise, n0 more than an arm's-length below me -: 'Open your mouth, Mr. Foster. Have a drink.'" (Page 301)
This gloomy tale is mesmerizing and captivating. I look forward to reading Wray's other novel, "The Right Hand of Sleep," and I eagerly anticipate his future literary offerings.
A word of caution for those who may come to the work under the misconception that it is some manner of historical fiction. While the story indeed is set in the past, during America's Civil War, and while it purports to be inspired by the historical character of John Murrell, the Mississippi River land pirate, bushwhacker, slave-runner and outlaw gang leader who in fact had been dead some 16 years by the advent of that war, it is not an historical novel in the conventional sense. Nor need it be. Historical accuracy is far from the point here. Grotesquerie, violence, madness, the atmospheric tension between reality and a kabbalistic sur-reality are.
Having read some of the reader reviews here, I would take strong exception to any suggestion that the book is difficult or forbidding or confusing or anything but entirely accessible with respect to its approach, format, structure and non-baroque language-use. No, it is not a strictly linear narrative. Yes, it does on occasion play with time, as it likewise is a book of multiple voices and points of view, but that is a large part of its creative appeal, and even its charm, if such an essentially macabre story can be said to be charming. .
other reviewers have commented that this is a hard read, and it is. the prose has been aptly described as "gothic". the author, mr. wray, doesn't seem to elaborate the plot very directly, he rather refers to it an oblique sort of way. as a result, readers may be left confused and frustrated.
on the plus side, this book was obviously a labor of love. the prose is exceedingly elegant and poetic; the book seems well researched, and the author is quite clever with some of the literary devices he employs. one also does pick up some history along the way, and the book drips with the ambience of the times. Ultimately, despite it's shortcomings, i found myself drawn to this book: though frustrating, it was hard to put down.
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