Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Devil and Henry Walker: Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace

Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace

I'm wracking my brain, but when it comes to U.S. writers of magical realism, I can only think of one: Daniel Wallace.

There's something about the fact that his books are set in the American South that makes the appearance of circus freaks, witches, and fertility rites almost entirely believable. If Robert Johnson can sell his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, it makes sense that a 10-year-old boy can sell his in exchange for magic.

Like Wallace's first novel, Big Fish, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is about the mysterious life of a complicated man, and the struggle to tease out the truth from the tall tale. Though it's a less successful novel than Big Fish, Wallace sets up an irresistible premise here.

The book begins on May 20, 1954, when Henry Walker the Negro Magician, is led away from the circus where he performs by three violent teens who mean him no good, and disappears.

Well no, actually, the book begins with a letter to an unknown party from someone named James, explaining how he tracked down Henry's friends to learn about his final years.

But really, the book begins with a young boy who lives in a grand hotel with his sister and his father, the hotel janitor. And then, one day, he meets the Devil in Room 702 and sells his soul in order to become a great magician. But the Devil takes something else, too. One day while performing a magic show for his father, Henry makes his sister, Hannah, vanish. Only he can't make her reappear again.

And the book also begins when Henry Walker becomes a Negro Magician who isn't actually black.

So, what's the real story? Wallace gradually unfolds Henry's life through journal entries, stories told by circus folk, newspaper clippings, and the investigations of a private detective. Each one brings the reader a little closer to the truth, but in the end, many questions go unanswered. In fact, the last chapter slams to a halt so abrupt that I paged past the acknowledgments, not quite believing that there wasn't a conclusion lurking around somewhere between them and the author bio.

That's not a completely bad thing. In fact, I suppose it's the whole point.

Henry Walker is a man who walks along the boundaries of life and death, black and white, illusion and reality, magic, the Devil, and hard, ugly, truth. What it makes him, however, is a bit of a void. And while Wallace makes it clear that he's done this purposefully, Henry isn't an easy character to deal with as a reader. And while I understand the necessity of leaving some questions unresolved, the manner in which Wallace chooses to do so is not entirely satisfactory.

Still, I wonder if I'd still feel this way if I read the book over again. Which, despite my criticisms, I may actually do.


Gwenda said...


The magical realism writers in the U.S. depends on how you define it, of course, but there are others that would fit a Daniel Wallace-type definition. Steven Millhauser, for sure.

mary_m said...

Yes, Steven Millhauser for sure - can't believe I forgot him.

Other writers that came to mind were George Saunders, Kelly Link, and Judy Budnitz, but I think that they're more straight-up fantasy and/or surrealist writers.

Magical realism... like irony, I know it when I see it.

Anonymous said...

I would bring to your attention Mark Helprin. "Winter's Tale" has to be on a list of the best books of the last 25 years.

mary_m said...

I hadn't heard of The Winter's Tale, but it sounds quite good. Thanks for the tip!

Daniel Wallace said...

Do read it again if you have a chance. It may improve on a second pass!