Review of Mr.
Sebastian And The Negro Magician, by Daniel Wallace
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/8/08
While I’ve not read Daniel Wallace’s second and third published novels, I have read his first, Big Fish, and now fourth, Mr. Sebastian And The Negro Magician. While both books are similarly good in quality, they are quite different in approaches, even if both subvert expected narrative strategies. However, the real question I have, after reading such a book is, why is Wallace not considered a top tier ‘name writer?’ Yes, one can argue that neither of his novels is unadulteratedly great, as both have some manifest flaws, but, compared to what is consistently published by houses that are clueless as to how to edit a book, his books should have a larger audience than they do. Whether this inattention is due to the failings of agents and editors, publishers and critics, or simply due to the backhanded bigotry that consigns writers into ghettoes- Wallace is in the ‘white Southern male writer of quirky tales’ genre, I cannot say with metaphysical verity, but something’s askew.
Just compare Wallace to some of the other big name writers whose every book gets fawned over. Is he better than T.C. Boyle? By a wide margin. Joyce Carol Oates? The gap is growing. Dave Eggers? Surely you jest. And speaking of jests, how about his nominal bête noir, David Foster Wallace? Let’s get serious. Unlike Eggers and DFW, Daniel Wallace can tell a gripping tale and write competent paragraphs, and unlike the first two writers, he can do so without his prose sinking into utter banality and melodrama. Even compared to someone like the vastly overrated Toni Morrison, his work is better. Whereas Morrison will deal with ‘deeper’ material, she often bogs down in narrative tropes that get anomic, and characters that mix melodrama with cliché. As for published living writers, I would say masters like William Kennedy and Charles Johnson, at their best, surpass Wallace, who still has a ways to go to catch them, but he still has several decades on both to even the score.
First, a brief précis of the narrative, then a detailing of the pros and cons of the book: the tale follows a bad, black magician named Henry Walker, who toils for a second rate circus, Jeremiah Mosgrove’s Chinese Circus, in the mid-1950s. His name seems to come from a more famous white magician from a decade earlier, but both men are one and the same. It seems that Henry believes that he sold his soul to the Devil, Mr. Sebastian- who taught him ‘real magic,’ when he was a boy, two decades plus earlier. As retribution, the Devil stole his sister, Hannah, and Henry spent years tracking her kidnapper down, and killing him. How he could kill a man he believes is the Devil is one of those things a reader either accepts or does not.
This all comes out after black Henry embarrasses three white hooligans who set about to beat and/or lynch him. Except that, when they do, they discover he is white. Thus begins a number of disjunct narratives that cover the same ground, told by Henry’s circus pals, who try to parallax the real Henry Walker from the myth. In the end, it turns out that Hannah never died. Her and Henry’s dad, after losing a fortune in the 1929 Stock Market Crash that caused the Great Depression, gave Hannah to Mr. Sebastian to raise as his own. Sebastian had a severe skin condition that made him look near albino, and was allergic to the sun. His father let Henry believe the worst, and this sent him anomically careering through the rest of his days, believing he was responsible for Hannah’s death at Mr. Sebastian’s hands, and Sebastian’s death at his hands. This info comes out via a private eye that the adult Hannah hires to find Henry. Not only is she alive, but so is Sebastian, for Henry’s murder of him turns out to be a fantasy.
We also learn that Henry’s blackness was nothing more than a sophisticated bit of minstrelsy, and the tale ends with the repentant teens saving Henry’s life, after the detective does not inform him of his sister’s existence. The book ends rather like a Yasujiro Ozu film, in that life goes on and the narrative tropes up and away from its lead character, even as he remains at its core.
The book is not really a picaresque, the way Big Fish was, but rather a parallax view of life. Bad critics often like to use big words like ‘picaresque,’ without really understanding them. And note, I wrote ‘life,’ not ‘a life,’ because, despite there being a main character, we get to learn much of the secondary characters via the ways they think of Henry and the ways they narrate his tale, even if we see little of them from a more objective point of view. This parallaxing of Henry, however, is the book’s biggest flaw, even as it is the book’s biggest plus. This is because, save for the chapter narrated by Carson Mulvaney, the detective, all the rest of the chapters, told by disparate characters within the narrative, and without (in the form of a seemingly omniscient voice), are disappointedly off the rack; in terms of diction (whether words spoken by a narrator or ‘written’ journal entries) and observational power. As for their observations, Wallace describes things well and convincingly, but different people simply do not experience reality in the same ways, and this coherence is a sign, to an astute reader, that the fiction is baring its artifice. If the observations were too difficult to parse, then, at the least, a bit of dictional distinction should have been made, for the chapter narrated by Mulvaney is the best in the book, not simply because it resolves many (if not all) plot points, but because Mulvaney is individuated, observing things the way a good detective would, and speaking in a Mike Hammer Lite sort of way.
The book, while failing to be something ‘deep,’ in the way Herman Melville, Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, or Mark Twain novels were, is still a ripping good yarn, and leagues above all but a couple of fictive releases published in any given year. That said, the book, while not filled with a bevy of ‘poesy,’ is good hard-hewn prose. One would not know that, however, from the intoxicatingly generic blurbs on the book’s cover:
his new novel, Mr. Sebastian And The Negro Magician, Daniel Wallace once
again amazes, dazzles and surprises, proving without a doubt that he is one of
the most imaginative and original writers of our times. Bravo!’
-Fannie Flagg, author of Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven
Perhaps the enthusiasm of Match Game host Gene Rayburn has not yet worn off, but the bolded simply ain’t so. While well wrought, the book is not going to knock anyone’s socks off, and many critics simply got bored by having to weather so many twists. While that is the flaw of the dull-witted critics, to go to the other extreme is, well….maybe Fannie’s not so extreme, after reading this:
‘Mr. Sebastian And The Negro Magician is a brilliantly constructed rollercoaster ride of a novel: there's a surprise and a thrill around every bend. With a magician’s deft touch, Daniel Wallace draws you into a richly conceived world of wonder and illusion, and at the end leaves you breathless and amazed, wondering how did he do that?’
-Sara Gruen, author of Water For Elephants
Thrills, surprises, a rollercoaster ride? Sorry, a Michael Bay schlock film this book is not, although some old serial type chapter ends are employed. Did Ms. Gruen even read the book? Other critics, however, even those who thought the book good, praised its ‘subtle prose.’ This sort of divergence is a sure sign that many of the critics assigned this book skimmed it for blurbabilty, and phoned in a review, based upon reading the press kit, a few chapters, and the end. Another sure sign is when an overused and misused phrase like Magical Realism is used for a book like this, despite, in the end, its very unmagicked interior reality, contrasting with that of the Kafkas and Latino writers who popularized the term.
Now, on to the pros and cons of the book, aside from those discussed above. On the plus side, Wallace’s book is a good treatise on a) memory (or, more accurately, forgetting) and b) America’s slippery sense of racial identity. Are memories infallible? When does a fantasy- like Henry’s ability to shapeshift and kill the Devil, replace reality? When does plain old obtuseness over racial identity become laughable stupidity? And, despite some lapses into triteness, the book does contain some common sense knowledge, such as this, which despite its seeming banality, is the core of the book:
‘Evil always wins,’ Henry said. His voice was low, strained, guttural. He sounded as if he were possessed. ‘Eventually evil wins. We fight it because it’s the right thing to do, but in the end we’ll always lose. Always. Because to be good- truly good- there are rules, we have rules inside of us, rules we have to follow to be that way, to stay good. And evil can do anything it wants to. It’s not a fair fight.’
Few modern works of published fiction get realer than this. They either
buy into the blithe American fiction that hard work will triumph, or they buy
into the chic Postmodern pessimism that all is for naught, and all is relative.
This passage is also a good example of Wallace at his most Wallacean. The
passage is not richly poetic like the best prose of a Hesse or Melville, and
Wallace does not need to ejaculate his bona fides in pedantic flourishes. It’s
just straightforward, and often even better crafted than this. Many of his
chapter ends are the best passages in the book, and so are some asides, such as
when the nameless narrator of the early part of the tale, informs the reader
that, in the pre-Civil Rights American South:
man with green eyes- a Negro- and this, in the end, is why Jeremiah hired him. A
marketing tool of these dimensions was not something he could let pass by. For a
magician was nothing, really, the same way a cow was nothing. But a Negro
magician- or, say, a two-headed cow- now that was something. Better even than a
Chinese acrobat. Jeremiah felt that Henry's inability to do anything truly
amazing (Henry thought of it as a kind of impotence, after so many potent years)
might actually work in his favor, at least with the crowds of the small southern
towns where Jeremiah made his living. So he hired him, and his prediction came
true. Watching a Negro fail was amusing. It was life-affirming. A white magician
who performed as Henry did- fumbling his cards, accidentally smothering a bird
in his jacket, and who, while sawing a woman in half, almost actually did (she
was fine, after they bandaged her up)- would have been a sad and pathetic
display of simple ineptitude. But Henry, the Negro Magician- the extremely
unmagical Negro magician- well, it was comedy, and the crowds could not get
enough of it. He played to a full tent every night.’
Or, when we get this description of Henry as a man we all know: ‘"Henry
Walker….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.’
Now, for the cons. As stated, the book never really gives a full meal of
intellectualism- ala a Milan Kundera, to chew on. Someone expecting Dostoevskian
drama will be disappointed. On the flip side, Wallace does not practice the
Russian long form of the novel. This book is only 257 pages, in large font, and
reminds me of a bit gentler Ambrose Bierce in tone. Yes, the whole Faustian
‘Devil Goes To Dixie’ trope is tired, but Wallace does subvert that in the
end, finally, after milking it for the majority of the narrative. Even worse is
the ‘Mystical Negro’ trope that has become so in vogue in the last decade.
Again, and finally, Wallace reveals that what we think is that trope is not,
after milking it. But, these are relatively minor flaws, in a book that moves
along and entertains.
All in all, Mr. Sebastian And The Negro Magician’s a good lighthearted ‘easy read’ (in the best sense)- although its highs are not as high as Big Fish’s and its lows not as low, that takes some risks and succeeds-sort of like the underrated Woody Allen film Broadway Danny Rose. Like Wallace’s writing, it is not in the top tier of American prose masterpieces (Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes Of Wrath, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Oxherding Tale, Legs, Ironweed), the same way Broadway Danny Rose cannot compare to Hannah And Her Sisters, Another Woman, or Crimes And Misdemeanors. But so few works of art get there, and Wallace, as stated earlier, still has time.
However, while he has time to rise in the ranks of the American fictive pantheon, his lack of name brand power says far too much of the awful and deliterate state of American writing today, with all the MFA writing mill scams, endless blurbfests that promote writers far less skilled than Wallace with similar hyperbole, and clueless agents and publishers. It says that the reason Wallace succeeded, at all, has little to do with anyone recognizing his writing’s quality, and more to do with someone merely ‘liking’ his first book, and publishing it for that reason alone. That, my readers, is an even gloomier prospect than a racially and reality-challenged magician, for there’s no magic wand in sight.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]
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