Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician
By Daniel Wallace
Doubleday, 257 pp.
Daniel Wallace's fourth novel has a whimsical title and cover. It is dedicated to his kids, the youngest of whom provides the protagonist's first name and half of his last. But don't judge this book by its cover or its dedication page.
Very adult language quickly appears (scarifying, nigger, shit) followed quickly by abductions, alcoholism, avarice, lies and death. There is an encomium to women's breasts and a brutal, race-motivated beating.
But what you'll really want to shield your kids from is the book's grim worldview, seen from its stakeout at the rear exit of the carnival tent of life, where the dark night reeks of dung and booze: "One losing battle after another: that's life for you. Winning doesn't even exist, really, not as something you can hold on to; it's just something that happens between losses."
The loser in question is "one of the necessary people in the world. He was the guy the rest of us could look at and say, As bad as things are, as low as I've fallen, as hard as this life is and will always be, at least I am not Henry Walker." Henry, a haunted, Job-like figure, is the titular "negro magician," but it is part of Wallace's plot-twisting purpose to reveal early on that Henry isn't really black and his magic has died. He's "a self-made freak." Nor is "Mr. Sebastian" who he seems—but is he who we're told he is? And do we really want to know?
Hoax and illusion, dissemblers and degenerates, magic and gloom—sounds like a sideshow, doesn't it? Jeremiah Mosgrove's Chinese Circus, to be precise, has set up in northern Alabama in 1954. Henry, already washed up in his mid-30s, performs his stumbling, creaky act and is then abducted by three violent racists. It's left to his colleagues, among them Rudy the Strongman, Jenny the Ossified Girl and JJ the Barker, to piece together Henry's extravagantly tortuous, tortured life. Their memories are often poignant ariettas of pity:
[A] boy whose mother dies before his ninth birthday, whose luminous sister is stolen from him before his eleventh, and whose father falls into the hopeless arms of death and lies there dying a little bit every day in plain sight of his son and the world—these are the real losses, the ones that tear into the body and bleed the soul. Henry wasn't the kind of man to count them, but that's why we have friends. They count our losses for us.
That probably isn't the usual language or syntax of a sideshow freak, but most of Wallace's characters are the beneficiaries of their conjurer's carefully tuned, wryly tender prose. It's as if their affection for Henry lifts their speech, even to the degree that they often sound rather alike.
Because Henry is primarily an object of others' pity, because he has no clear tragic flaw, and because we seldom hear from him directly, he remains a fugitive from the reader's sympathy. Dispossessed of his family, his powers, even his identity, he is defined by bereavement and misfortune. When late in the book he declares that he's spent his entire life looking for his lost sister and her kidnapper, it's almost a surprise: He's scarcely shown that kind of will or anima. He is, in the words of one character, "like a puddle in the sun: every day he became smaller and smaller." He's as inscrutable as Edward Bloom, the mythic patriarch of Wallace's first book, Big Fish. (Wallace may have found his true subject: the Unknowable Man.)
But as with Bloom, we discover something of Henry through his peculiar dreams. A clue comes early, reappearing as the book unfolds:
[...] a house in a neighborhood [...] just a nice little house with a yard and a lady next door who hangs her laundry out on a clothesline across her backyard. A lady who makes pies, and grows yellow flowers. Where everyone's house is white, and has a television antenna [...] wobbling precariously on the shingled roof. A couple of kids, too. Stuff that, when you add it all up, equals belonging. That's normal, and normal is good.
That's more than a material goal. It's the modest but ardent reverie of the lonely, the misfit, the beset, the cheated and the disgraced. Late in the book, when the battered Henry beholds this ordinary vision, he is beatified.
And that vision, above all, is why Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician can be dedicated to children yet isn't a children's book. Kids, with our blessing, chase their dreams into the clouds. Kids might run away and join the circus. But after the dreams have faded and the circus has left town, Wallace gives us an adult fantasy of comforting normalcy, where wild adventure gives way to rectitude, escape to neighborliness, magic to truth: the simple, clean virtues of a world where we hang the laundry out to dry and watch the children build castles in the yard.
Daniel Wallace appears at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St. in Durham, on Thursday, July 26, at 7 p.m., and at McIntyre's Fine Books, in Fearrington Village in Pittsboro, on Saturday, July 28, at 11 a.m.