Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician

Jul 23, 2007

What a pleasure it is to read a book and be able to say, without qualification, this is terrific. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is Daniel Wallace's best, of Ray in Reverse, The Watermelon King, and even Big Fish.

The average book is just that?average. Reviewing books week in and week out, for a lifetime, a person can get discouraged. There is in fact a temptation, sometimes, to make yourself feel good by being clever in making fun of a book, a book into which the author poured his heart, soul, time, and energy, sometimes for years. This is a temptation to be avoided.

It is also good to remember, here in Alabama, that the reviewer will probably find himself in the same room as the writer, probably within a few months. So one should modulate one's scorn and wit.

What a pleasure it is, then, to read a book and be able to say, without qualification, this is terrific. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician gives me just this opportunity. This novel is Daniel Wallace's best, and I know that that is what most writers want to hear. It is always melancholy to tell a parent that her latest baby is nowhere near as pretty and bright as her previous.

Mr. Sebastian is better than Ray in Reverse, The Watermelon King, and even Big Fish. There are reasons for this.

Wallace is older and more mature. This is a more serious, literary book. It is clever and amusing but it is not as playful, as fantastic, as Big Fish.

In this new novel, Wallace has abandoned the very short chapter form of his earlier work. Instead of chapters five or six pages long, these are longer, twenty or thirty pages, and there is time for momentum and suspense to build. Reading Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is like reading a novel by Bellow or Roth?the reader knows that the writer is in control, knows what he is doing and where he is going.

So. What is this novel about, you are thinking. It is about the nature of reality, the elusive unknowable nature of the so-called real world all around us. In what I take to be the climax of the novel, some characters muse on how much of the world is not the way they thought it was. The protagonist, Henry Walker, responds: "Almost everything."

There is a lot of plot in this novel, but it is not conventional. It is magic. The time is the Great Depression. Henry's mother dies. That seems real. His father loses heart and takes to drink. Again. Real. In the hotel where Henry's father is janitor/handyman, Henry learns magic, not just tricks, from Mr. Sebastian, who may be Satan or may be a traveling soap salesman. Henry's sister Hannah is or perhaps is not abducted by Mr. Sebastian; a Faustian bargain was or perhaps was not reached. Henry then has a life of seeking Hannah and seeking revenge on Satan or Mr. Sebastian or whoever that was. He becomes the transcendent magician. He can do tricks, yes, but he can also do magic. In fact, at the height of his powers he can actually bring a dead person back to life. Maybe.

Henry joins a freak show, Jeremiah Mosgrove's Chinese Circus. In the course of the novel, those who knew Henry tell their stories of him: the owner of the show, Henry's manager, his girlfriend, Rudy the Strong Man, the Petrified Woman, a private detective who is hired to find Henry, if he can be found. Henry is famous for a while, then forgotten. He is a white man. He is a black man. In fact, the novel opens in north Alabama in 1954, with Henry as a Negro abducted by three racist young white men and killed. Maybe.

This novel is not so-called magical realism, where unrealistic bits intrude from time to time and are presented as if physically normal. This novel is magic. Nothing is what is seems to be, exactly, and that is surely Wallace's point. Read it, you'll like it.