The Amalgamation Polka, by Stephen Wright

Gothic grotesques of an old America whose dreams and nightmares live on
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Given the contradictions embedded in the foundations of their society, American writers show a preoccupation with what it means to be American. This may explain why the Civil War continues to be a popular subject. Stephen Wright's curious Amalgamation Polka doesn't conform to a conventional antebellum novel - not much elegy here. Its quack dentists, "notion-higglers", rifle Christians - a teeming cast of grotesques - speechify as if they have just dropped anchor from the Pequod. But while the chaos and brutality of the period ring true, The Amalgamation Polka also appears deliberately anachronistic.

Liberty Fish is the son of abolitionists. Their home in New York is one stop on an underground railway for fugitives. In this "enchanted domain" the dead seemingly rise out of coffins; cookies are baked in the shape of chained slaves; a Cyclops-like figure inhabits the cellar. Mrs Fish ran away from her home in Southern Carolina, unable to bear the cruelties she witnessed as a girl. When the war comes, 17-year-old Liberty enlists and, after surviving a nightmarish battle, deserts and makes his way to Redemption Hall to find his slave-owning grandparents.

Yet Liberty appears almost passive compared with the passionate world through which he moves. Beginning with the gang-rape of a black girl, Wright sets up the violence to come but gives it a surreal flavour. For the rapists are "bearded ladies" who have been dancing drunkenly. Deserters disguised in looted dresses? Freaks who have lost their sideshow? We are never told, but it remains a horribly memorable scene.

Race, utopianism, violence, madness, religion - Wright fixes on issues still agitating America. Occasionally it's hard to gauge why this narrative meanders as it does. Some passages, particularly on the plantation, read like over-the-top gothic, with the eugenics-mad grandfather breeding with his shackled mulatto daughters. His monstrous attempts at amalgamation are somewhat different from those of which Liberty's parents dream.

If Wright's swollen prose can overreach, at best it ticks with a sensitive energy. Peapods split like "emerald wallets, the peas tumbling into the bucket as noisily as balls of shot". On board a boat there's "a dim pulse beating in every crucified board, chattel kin to the maples and ashes and cedars whose latticed canopies sometimes passed so closely overhead". Living and dead briefly, hauntingly connect.