A few years ago, on one of our trips to New York, MKS and I went with Patrick and Teresa to Coney Island. It was, as I remember it, rather sad and dilapidated, few people about and the whole place having a profound air of running down. There were big rides, most of which excited Teresa and horrified me, but there was little of the neon glitz I’d anticipated. But what I do remember about that day was on a lonely corner where we happened upon a genuine, honest-to-goodness barker. He wore his big voice and extravagant patter like a suit of gaudy clothing. It was one of the most exciting things I remember from that trip, I think I could have stood there and watched him for hours.
I don’t know what it is about barkers. We had them in Britain, you see them in old silent films of fairgrounds and seaside entertainments, waving their arms and exhorting the passers-by to come sample the wonders. But they don’t feel British, they feel distinctly American to me, a brash and colourful glimpse of some other America when the snake-oil salesman and the entrepreneur were as one. A glimpse, perhaps, of ante-bellum America.
If Stephen Wright’s odd but engaging novel is in any way typical of the American psyche (and I’ve read enough American fictions set in the same period to say it is far from atypical) then pre-Civil War America was a time when showmanship ruled. The first half of The Amalgamation Polka concerns the growing up of Liberty Fish, born, as the name might suggest, to abolitionist parents in upstate New York. Yet his journeys are full of encounters with the garish, the larger than life: a dentist performs an extraction as a public entertainment under a tree in the town square; laughing gas is demonstrated as a sideshow in a New York brothel. Canal boat pilots strut the streets like lords of creation, engaging in fistfights with their rivals to decide who shall carry which passengers. It is a time of bombast and braggadocio, when all that was needed was to reach out and grab whatever you might desire.
But with the onset of war this confidence is battered out of people, and colour leeches away into a duotone of blue and grey. Wright is nowhere near as good on the war as he is on the pre-war world (there are many many better novels of the Civil War going back at least to Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and coming up to E.L. Doctorow’s The March), except for one curious scene that is completely divorced from the rest of the novel. It opens the book, none of the participants are named, and it is never referred to again, yet it captures something significant, both about the war and about Wright’s book. In it we see a bunch of bearded women dancing in the rain, but gradually we realise these are Union soldiers, ‘bummers’ from Sherman’s march through Georgia or, more likely, the Carolinas, who have just cleared a Southern mansion of its food, drink and other treasures. The scene ends with them raping a runaway slave. It is exuberant and outlandish, and the exigencies of battle mean that none of the other war scenes can share such qualities. Yet Wright is a writer of the exuberant and outlandish, which is why the ante-bellum sections of the novel are so much more alive than the war scenes.
For Wright, I suspect, the spirit of America he wants to write about is one of exuberance and outlandishness, the spirit of the barker. But it is a spirit here snuffed out by the war. When Liberty Fish deserts Sherman’s army and walks across the south (a curious inversion of the passage in Cold Mountain, except that Liberty’s walk is passed over in silence and is, unbelievably, without incident) he ends up at the Carolina mansion of his mother’s slaveholding family. Liberty’s grandfather turns out to be the sort of larger-than-life character that populated the first half of the book, except that he is mad, embarked on a hair-brained scheme to turn his slaves white.
The implications are two-fold. Most obviously, slaveholding is equated with insanity and clearly has no place in a sane post-war society. But also, the big, the brash, the exuberant, is similarly out of place. They are pushed to the sidelines now, in fictions of post-Civil War America we see them selling snake oil in the West, acting in Hollywood, performing in the carny, but no longer part of the warp and weft of ordinary civilised society. They end up as barkers in a lonely side street in a rundown Coney Island, but once they were a sort of prototypical American hero.
First published at LiveJournal, 11 April 2008.