Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mini-Review of "Canaan's Tongue" by John Wray

A month ago, I offered a review of John Wray's book, "Lowboy." I was so taken with the unique character of his writing that I immediately carved out time to read one of his earlier works, "Canaan's Tongue." I was even more impressed with my second taste of Wray's story telling. This tale is told in a very different voice - or rather, symphony of voices - than the voice Wray used in "Lowboy."

Imagine a blend of Faulkner and Mark Twain, with a twist of Dickens' Pickwick Papers, and you will have a good idea of the feel that the writer creates in painting a vivid group portrait of a motley group of rogues - all toiling under the dubious leadership of "The Redeemer." Set before and during the Civil War, the narrative follows the misadventures of a gang of horse thieves and slave traders. Based on the real historical character, John Murrell and his disciples, Wray's tale shines a light on the dark underbelly of American life on the Mississippi as the sun was setting on the era of slavery. The introduction of elements of Jewish Kabbalah add an aura of mysticism to the proceedings.

Let me share two brief excerpts to allow you to taste Wray's original and wry literary style. In this portion of the story, the protagonist, Virgil Ball, is about to open the hatch on the hold of a slave ship that is transporting scores of slaves on the Mississippi River:

"When the bolt slid open the sound stopped short, leaving a sudden vacancy in the air, as though a piano-wire had snapped. A humid silence met me as I raised the hatch, broken only by a rasping - or a wheezing, better said - in the far corner of the hold. The smell of piss and sweat and excrement seized me by the throat and commenced to wring the breath out of me slowly. A step-ladder extended two rungs downward, perhaps three, before vanishing into darkness. The stench and the dampness and a steady tightening of my bowels, as though in anticipation of a blow, were all there was to tell me I was being watched by two-score pair of eyes." (Page 99)

This final passage sets the scene for a climactic encounter with a prisoner the gang has captured and immured in the basement of their lair:

"My last day at Geburah begins softly, Virgil says. I've been sitting in the lampless parlor half the night when the house-door sighs open, delicate as hackled lace. A moment later Parson flutters by. He glances into the parlor as he passes, shading his eyes, but he fails to see me slumped over in the dark. He moves down the hall. The cellar door opens, then shuts, and I draw in a breath. I rise from the settee more carefully than a spinster. A draft curls about my shins, leafy with the smell of coming rain. Something is going to happen. It sits like a clot of river-bottom in my throat.

Parson is quiet as dust on the cellar steps but he can't keep them from creaking subtly as he descends. His oversight has given me an advantage over him, the first in our long acquaintance, and I'm determined not to let it pass. I steal lightly down the hall. He's left the cellar door unlatched. I reach the top of the steps just as he gets to the bottom.

To go any further would be to lose straight-away, so I crouch at the top of the steps and bide. I see nothing but the rough pine boards leading down into the blackness -; I hear nothing but my own unsteady breathing. I've just begin to wonder whether Parson hasn't vanished through some fissure in the earth when a voice comes out of the gloom, measured and precise, n0 more than an arm's-length below me -: 'Open your mouth, Mr. Foster. Have a drink.'" (Page 301)

This gloomy tale is mesmerizing and captivating. I look forward to reading Wray's other novel, "The Right Hand of Sleep," and I eagerly anticipate his future literary offerings.



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