three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-TheAmalgamationPolkaLiberty Fish is the son of abolitionist parents whose upstate New York home is an active hub of the Underground Railroad. His best friend is a freed slave named Euclid. So it is only natural that he joins the Union forces in their war against the Confederacy. But for Liberty, the battle is personal as well as moral. His mother was expelled from her ancestral Southern home for her abolitionist views, and Liberty longs to confront his slaveholding grandparents. His episodic trail leads him to Redemption Hall, South Carolina, where he discovers that his grandparents have their own horrific ideas about slavery.
Knopf. 304 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 067945117X

San Diego Union Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Wright’s work … has all the elements of enduring art: a high purpose, a masterful use of language, engrossing conflict, catharsis. More than this, The Amalgamation Polka, the book with the deceptively frivolous title, does what we ask all great literature to do: It inspires us to a loftier destiny." Thornton Sully

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[I]t offers something rare in historical novels and also available in Wright’s other books, the vertiginous sensation of a tilt forward into the unknown. This, after all, is what history feels like to the people who live through it, the ones with no idea what will happen next and an uncertain grasp on who the good guys will turn out to be." Laura Miller

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As usual, he writes in beautiful, baroque sentences that circle around to deliver their sense and often a dose of comedy, as well. … . One disconnected section tells vividly of Uncle Potter’s encounters in Mexico and Bloody Kansas; another involves a boat trip on the Erie Canal with Liberty and Thatcher and others." Anne Morris

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Sometimes stunning in its power, sometimes teetering on the edge of parody, Stephen Wright’s The Amalgamation Polka is a strange and striking piece of work. It can be harrowing or sublime, sternly sobering or pleasurably outlandish. It can also be a bit baffling when it comes to consistency of tone or coherence of theme." Michael Upchurch

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he period setting forces Mr. Wright to rely on secondary sources instead of his own gifts of observation, and combined with his peculiar inability to decide exactly what sort of story he wants to tell, it makes for a mannered and maladroit book." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Is it a curse or a blessing that the work of idiosyncratically original writers prompts the most divisive reviews? There’s no preordained slot for Steven Wright (Going Native; Meditations in Green), so his fictions have to be read with an open mind and, perhaps, a predisposition for his "dark, hallucinatory world" (New York Times). The main point of dissension centers on whether Wright has balanced the strains of parody and the grotesque carefully enough. Critics also disagree about whether the author’s verbal prowess, sometimes so powerful, overwhelms the story. In the end, with some critics’ accolades set against others’ criticisms, most critics are impressed enough by the author’s accomplishment to warrant it a success.