A magical mystery tour of the South

Daniel Wallace's 'Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician,' explores race and identity with mordant wit.

"Big Fish" author Daniel Wallace dabbles in magical realms, both literal and figurative, in this slim, charming novel. Henry Walker, the Negro magician of the title, is a man tormented by a heartsick childhood. He is also anything but what he seems, onstage and off. Henry has devolved from a nationally renowned maestro into a bumbling, lugubrious court jester who slugs it out in the magic minors as part of Jeremiah Musgrove's Chinese Circus. On a May night in 1954, three teenagers kidnap Henry in rural Alabama after yet another dismal performance. They beat him up and ponder murder, but a smudge or two on the magician's face leaves them baffled.

His captors' confusion stems from the magician's ethnic sleight of hand: Henry is, in fact, white, not black. "Why would a man do this to himself?" Wallace writes. "It is as if a king chose to become a pauper." Wallace maintains a steady hand while shifting from sorrow to mordant wit. Throughout the novel, the author plays with the willing suspension of disbelief – under the big top and in matters of the heart. Magic provides the perfect milieu for Wallace's kaleidoscopic whirlwind of fact and fiction, the tricks of memory and the tragedy of good intentions. And, like any magician worth his top hat, Wallace closes strong, delivering a pitch-perfect finale that includes a rabbit-worthy revelation. Grade: A

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