Books

Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician: A Novel by Daniel Wallace

Claudia Smith Brinson
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Wonderful tales emerge in Mr. Sebastian.


Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician: A Novel

Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 038552109X
Author: Daniel Wallace
Price: $21.95
Length: 272
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-07
Amazon

Daniel Wallace, a writer of magical realism, adds another layer by writing about magic (as in tricks) and magic (as in sorcery) and the devil (maybe).

The author of Big Fish and a writing teacher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wallace is transfixed by the wanderings of story and the heart.

Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician takes us to Jeremiah Mosgrove's Chinese Circus in the 1950s to meet Henry Walker, a magician who can no longer perform magic.

Before he owned the circus, hirsute Jeremiah was one of the performers, the Human Bear. Before Henry joined the circus, he raised the dead.

But not now. "A white magician who performed as Henry did -- fumbling his cards, accidentally smothering a bird in his jacket, and who, while sawing a woman in half, almost actually did (she was fine, after they bandaged her up) -- would have been a sad and pathetic display of simple ineptitude. But Henry, the Negro Magician -- the extremely unmagical Negro magician, well it was comedy, and the crowds could not get enough of it."

Wallace wants to examine illusion, which he does very well. And character, which he does unevenly. And race, which he does not do well. Even so, wonderful tales abound.

The novel begins with Henry's kidnapping and beating by three Alabama teens. The night before, in a temporary rescue by Rudy, the Strongest Man in the Entire World, we, and the hoodlums, are told the key story of Henry's life:

Henry's father loses everything in the Crash. His mother dies of tuberculosis. Henry and his sister Hannah move to a hotel, to a space between the kitchen and the laundry. Their father becomes the janitor. While playing hide-and-seek in the many rooms, Henry meets the devil (perhaps), called Mr. Sebastian, and becomes a real magician.

There's a price. Dealing with the devil always carries a price, right? It involves Henry's only love, sister Hannah. Henry's response is to devote his life to searching for his sister -- and for revenge.

Henry gives away what little he has -- time with his sister, caution and moral discernment -- to have the ability to make magic. But he's just a child, a desperate child. He feels he has lost his heart and soul as he gains a career (and, perhaps, power) but subtracts a family.

As we wander back and forth through his life, Henry's tricks, and his illusions, as a magician are described. They might be all tricks (maybe he was always a failure) -- or miracles.

In the first chapter, as Henry is beaten, we are introduced to the illusion of race and of story: "... the truth was being presented as fiction, and easier to tell because of that ...," and "... every word he had told Rudy was true -- not factual, but true."

Wallace weaves illusion after illusion, story after story, while we sort for what's true, what's truly the story of Henry's life. Unfortunately, our storytellers -- Rudy, JJ the Barker, Jeremiah, Jenny the Ossified Girl, private detective Carson Mulvaney -- sound much alike as narrators.

In the course of his travels, Henry survives World War II ("It was said that Henry could change a bullet's path with a whisper"), is used and betrayed by managers Tom Hailey and Edgar Kastenbaum and loses his only other love, Marianne La Fleur.

Wallace does not argue that loss is an illusion. And he grants Henry very little grace in dealing with loss, only one last, illusory vision.

Late in the novel, we are warned, "If we are all born equals -- whole numbers -- and that is a shaky proposition in and of itself, Henry's journey through life was an exercise in subtraction. What did he have that wasn't eventually taken away from him?"

But on the preceding page Henry himself has said he became a million different people, working auditoriums and sideshows under a million different names. He has told us evil always wins. He has told us love is magic and love is a trick and love is real because "It hurts too much not to be."

So maybe the book is an exercise in addition, then subtraction, until you get to the true story. Or maybe that's an illusion, too.

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