Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace. Doubleday. 257 pages. $21.95
Daniel Wallace can really tell some whoppers, and so do the people he writes about: elaborate liars who shape reality to suit their needs, becoming artists of their own lives in the process.
In his wonderful 1998 debut, the aptly-titled Big Fish -- which received a suitably Felliniesque treatment in Tim Burton's film adaptation -- a son tries to make peace with a dying father who has never played straight with him, and whose invented past includes a two-headed woman, a giant, and an old crone with a prophetic glass eye. The 2000 follow-up, Ray in Reverse, proved that a dull story doesn't gain momentum if you tell it backwards. Wallace was back on track with his lively 2003 The Watermelon King, which also features a parent with a talent for deception, and centers on a town where prosperity seems to be tied to a ridiculous fertility rite.
Wallace's most arresting characters are serious about their illusions, and they have a kindred spirit in their creator. Henry Walker, the "Negro magician" of Wallace's new novel, might well be speaking for the author when he says that the trick is to "present an effect so clever and skillful that the audience won't believe their eyes, and can't think of the explanation, but feel in their hearts there is one. But there won't be; even you won't be able to explain it. The sense of universal bafflement is part of the entertainment. It's a lie made true."
In the present case, it's a story that rings hollow. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is moderately more ambitious than Wallace's previous novels, as it uses several narrators -- none fully reliable, none of whom have the whole story -- to weave together a story of r ace, identity and exploitation. It's a mystery that aims to be a little more complex ambiguous than Wallace's previous free-wheeling novels, and keeps you guessing until the end. Unfortunately, this does not prove to be much of a reward, and consequently soured my view of the book as a whole.
As always, Wallace likes to begin with death or it's near approach, and work his way back. Henry is past tense from the first page, and we soon get a hint as to why: traveling with a ragtag circus as it tours the Deep South in the mid-1950s, he unintentionally offends a gang of racist thugs. This goes against the unspoken contract of Henry's audience appeal: he isn't supposed to be good at what he does, but so incompetent that it makes the audience feel superior. "Watching a Negro fail was amusing. It was life-affirming." For these people, "no matter how low on the ladder of life they had been dragged down, no matter how miserable they were or would become, there would always be someone clinging to the rung below them, and his name would be Henry Walker."
When the rednecks decide to teach him a lesson, they learn, as we do, that Henry has a surprise for them: he's white. How Henry wound up in this predicament is pieced together over the course of the novel by his fellow circus performers and one private detective, adding up to a Faustian tale where good and evil play musical chairs.
What we know for certain is that Henry and his beloved sister Hannah were raised by a poor father, working in the depths of the Depression as a janitor in a plush hotel. One day, Henry meets a demonic magician dressed in ghostly white, Mr. Sebastian, who agrees to teach him the secrets of his trade. Not long after, Hannah and Mr. Sebastian go missing. Whether she is the devil's payment, or whether something both more rational and more disturbing is going on, is a ball of string the novel will paw at for the next couple hundred pages.
In the meantime, Henry becomes a world-class magician who is basically sold off by his father to a sleazy circus manager, at whose behest he changes his skin color for commercial appeal. Over the years, in chapter-length accounts from various circus folk and others, Henry becomes something of a chameleon, able to entertain and mystify audiences either as an African, an Indian or -- for one long stretch -- as a white man, before finally becoming a coonshow stereotype. When he's at his best, he can perform the kind of miracles -- returning what's missing, resurrecting the dead -- that are denied him in real life.
Henry is presented as a tragic figure who, as you might have guessed, doesn't know who he really is, but in Wallace's hands his tragedy comes across as a bit of a hard sell; we are constantly told he is doomed, but it's a forced sense of doom, and the character never really evokes the kind of sadness Wallace seems to be gunning for. I won't say anything about the final revelation except that I found not so much ambiguous as arbitrary, and less likely to leave readers wondering how Wallace pulled off this trick than why he bothered.