From the first sentence of his new novel, Stephen Wright wants to be sure he has the reader's attention: "The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud." And singing. And just when you start grinning at the goofiness of it all, you realize the "ladies" are Civil War deserters, and the carnival-like atmosphere gives way to darkness.
That audacious, ambitious tone runs throughout The Amalgamation Polka, where absurdist humor and horror do battle with each other, occasionally crowding logic off the page. The coming-of-age tale of teenage soldier Liberty Fish, the novel is also about the American character. It is not a flattering likeness, but, before the book literally and figuratively heads south in its final section, it is almost always a compelling one.
Young Liberty was born to staunch abolitionist parents, Thatcher and Roxana Fish, who spend weeks on the road lecturing against the peculiar institution of slavery. (His mother was born to South Carolina plantation owners, but left her family in her teens - wearing nothing but a bedsheet.) His upbringing is supervised by his twitchy, fad-happy Aunt Aroline and Euclid, a former slave who lives in the Fish basement.
Liberty is a passive hero in the mold of David Copperfield, Pip, or Forrest Gump, for that matter: He exists to observe momentous times. And Wright makes sure he has plenty to see - including a self-proclaimed pirate who lives in an underground cave planted with Queen Anne's lace. An Erie Canal voyage gives Wright the opportunity to dredge up such now-rare varieties as itinerant dentists, patent-medicine salesmen, and hoggees.
The archaeology extends to linguistics, with words such as "gonfalon" and "shecooneries" getting perhaps their first airing in a generation. Wright's humor and love of language give the early sections of the novel an energetic joy - although those who favor short sentences are likely to despair.
Then the Civil War begins, and Liberty enlists. Here, Wright ("Meditations in Green") uses his abilities to render graphic descriptions of battle. Like Inman in "Cold Mountain," Liberty ultimately gets a crawful of carnage and inhumanity, and walks off - not in the direction of home, but to his grandparents at Redemption Hall, at which point the novel veers permanently off course. The effort to jam horror and comedy together ultimately derails the novel.
Liberty's grandfather experiments on his slaves, trying to "turn them white." In addition to his appalling hobby, he waxes prophetic about the future of the country. "In the aftermath, this illness will persist, under newfangled labels, of course, cunningly rigged out in fancy masquerade, but beneath the surface persisting nonetheless. No, our social ailment will not be cured by iron and gunpowder."
While he recoils from his grandfather's actions, Liberty - who now speaks in stilted, 50-word sentences - does little to stop them. Nor does he have a strong enough personality to provide a counterweight to Asa's overly colorful brand of insanity. The mismatched pair and illogic of events ends up upending the final chapters of what had been a thoroughly impressive novel.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.