The Amalgamation Polka
By Stephen Wright
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780679451174, 304pp.)
Publication Date: February 14, 2006
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Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a bright star in the literary sky,” Stephen Wright now extends his astonishing accomplishment with a Civil War novel unlike any other.
Born in 1844 in bucolic upstate New York, Liberty Fish is the son of fervent abolitionists as well as the grandson of Carolina slaveholders even more dedicated to their cause. Thus follows a childhood limned with fugitive slaves moving through hidden passageways in the house, his Uncle Potter’s free-soil adventure stories whose remarkable violence sets the tone of the mounting national crisis, and the inevitable distress that befalls his mother whenever letters arrive from her parents—a conflict that ultimately costs her her life and compels Liberty, in hopes of reconciling the familial disunion, to escape first into the cauldron of war and then into a bedlam more disturbing still.
Rich in characters both heartbreaking and bloodcurdling, comic and horrific, The Amalgamation Polka is shot through with politics and dreams, and it captures great swaths of the American experience, from village to metropolis to plantation, from the Erie Canal to the Bahamas, from Bloody Kansas to the fulfillment of the killing fields. Yet for all the brutality and tragedy, this novel is exuberant in the telling and its wide compassion, brimming with the language, manners, hopes, and fears of its time—all of this so transformed by Stephen Wright’s imaginative compass that places and events previously familiar are rendered new and strange, terrifying and stirring. Instantly revelatory, constantly mesmerizing, this is the work of a major writer at the top of his form.
Stephen Wright was educated at the U.S. Army Intelligence School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught at Princeton University, Brown University, and, most recently, The New School. He lives in New York City.
"It is precisely Wright's ability to capture the raw beauty and immediacy of an earlier America while reflecting on its moral contradictions the makes The Amalgamation Polka such a great pleasure to read. [He is] a master who deserves a wide audience."
--John Hammond, San Antonio Express-News
"Endlessly beguiling [by] an extravagantly talented novelist. . . It offers something rare in historical novels . . . 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. It feels like the world as you know it, dissolving and re-forming into an unimaginable and unnavigable new configuration. It feels like now . . . For Wright, America, past and present, is Wonderland, a place of marvels and horrors from which not even the fortunate escape with their heads. " --Laura Miller, front page, New York Times Book Review
"Yes, yes, there is a civil war, and there's a president to be assassinated. But that's not why you'll read on. It's the world itself, imagined and recognizable as never before, that will make you turn the page. The writing is so good that you forget you're reading about the past; you lean forward to see what remarkable turn will come next, what rich details will arise in a world that is grotesque, flame lit, driven by money and possession. The language is so generously arcane and richly evocative that it begins to feel, well, as if it might just be the future." --Tom Chiarella, Esquire
“This dark and lyrical tale of madness and prophecy speaks uncannily from within its period, in the tradition of heartbroken humor which America’s lapses of faith in its own promise have always evoked in the finest of our storytellers, among whom Stephen Wright here honorably takes his place.” —Thomas Pynchon
"An omnivorous approach to the period [of] Bible-thumping abolitionists, fire-breathing secessionists, the Underground Railroad and a bitterly unamalgamated America reunited only after the deaths of 600,000 soldiers, North and South . . . There are shades of Hawthorne, Irving and Melville, little tonal shifts from chapter to chapter; [and in the] battle scenes, we feel as if we've stumbled across the infernal manuscripts of a long-lost literary talent, as if the scary ellipses of The Red Badge of Courage were being filled in by a chronicler as ravenous for bodily data as Whitman." --Mark Rozzo, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Existentially astonishing . . . Quite simply an astonishing novel, brilliantly executed and beautifully written. Stephen Wright deserves to be famous and feted for it." --Diane Roberts, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Summoning virtually every shade in the American canon (Melville to Cormac McCarthy, Twain to Pynchon) yet possessed of a rollicking, morbid tone all its own, Stephen Wright's The Amalgamation Polka does for the Civil War era what the author's previous books did for the late 20th century . . . Wright's acute attention to the shapes and sounds of words--and the resultant renewal of the familiar stuff of history--will bring a smile to your own lips as it sets your brain on fire." --Jason McBride, Village Voice
"A grand and bizarre epic of the Civil War era [that] works brilliantly because Wright appears to have created this story not as a 21st-century author commenting on 19th-century values, but as someone living through, and struggling against, this moment in history. This view from deep inside . . . bestows profound rewards." --Carol Iaciofano, The Boston Globe
"A work of high imagination, and we have never seen the time or its people portrayed quite like this." --Art Winslow, Chicago Tribune
"A soaring work by an extremely talented writer rapidly establishing himself as one of the major talents of our time . . . [Wright] has taken a time we think we know and given it a sharp new edge. Boiling with anger and calm, cruelty and compassion, horror and laugh-out-loud humor, The Amalgamation Polka perfectly captures not only the human experience but also what it means to be an American . . . A believable celebration of the rich stew of humanity." --Geoff Campbell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
"Ambitious [and] entertaining . . . a wonder to behold." --John Wray, Washington Post Book World
"[The Amalgamation Polka] has all the elements of enduring art: a high purpose, a masterful use of language, engrossing conflict, catharsis [and] also does what we ask all great literature to do: It inspires us to a loftier destiny." --Thornton Sully, San Diego Union-Tribune
"Stephen Wright [is] the most important American novelist you've probably never heard of [and] The Amalgamation Polka might be the book that, deservedly, makes his as familiar a name as Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon." --Roger Gatham, Austin American-Statesman
"Deliriously original . . . An amazing, alchemical blend of dead seriousness and giddy high spirits." --Donna Rifkind, Baltimore Sun
"Stunning in its power . . . The Amalgamation Polka is a daring, challenging work. It dances, with considerable vigor, to a grimly jaunty beat distinctly its own [and] can be harrowing or sublime, sternly sobering or pleasurably outlandish . . . You just want to keep reading." --Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
"Consistently brilliant. If you're eager to read an entire novel in a state of baffled amazement, this should do it for you." --Adam Begley, The New York Observer
"If you begin The Amalgamation Polka be prepared for a lot of re-reading, due to the vibrant beauty and savory brilliance of every paragraph. This kind of writing is matched by maybe three or four living American novelists, and not very many dead ones." —Michael Herr