It's an old storyteller's saw, of course (and rarely, these days, sharp enough to cut a woman in half): ye olde Deal with the Devil. Doctor Faustus, well-known metaphysician and seminal mad scientist, leads the way, providing motivations extant in a legion of fictional satanic pacts ranging from "The Devil and Daniel Webster" to Angel Heart (1987). It's always about getting drunk with some kind of power, influence, maybe a little immortality thrown in for good measure -- a lesser evil of the heart begetting a greater evil in the soul. And it never turns out very damned well.
Daniel Wallace, with the fantastic Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, subverts the Genre of Devilish Dealings by removing the aforementioned motivations. Our hero isn't a wrong-minded egomaniac looking for the secrets of the universe, but a mere boy, Henry Walker, lodged at a painful crossroads. It is the grainy depths of the Great Depression, his mother recently dead, his father fallen from Wall Street mogul to destitute hotel janitor, and his beloved, angelic sister Hannah has decided she loves a stray dog (which she names Joan Crawford) more than him.
Henry stumbles from grace via a chance meeting with "Mr. Sebastian" (if that is his real name), a peculiar pasty-skinned gentleman who offers to teach Henry some nifty magic tricks, most of them to do with a deck of ordinary cards -- but Henry must vow to never reveal the source of his artistry, which turns out to be shockingly powerful, if not borderline sinister: along with the preternatural sleight-of-hand technique comes powers of telekinesis, teleportation, and conjuring. Henry can just as easily make a full-course meal appear from thin air as he can commune with the newly dead. By the pricking of their thumbs and the mingling of their blood, Henry's fate entwines with the murky wishes of Mr. Sebastian -- who then vanishes into the aether, with Hannah in tow. Henry will spend the rest of his life searching for her, in one way or another.
This tragic story is told in a series of secondhand flashbacks by Henry's former fellow sideshow performers, who knew him at the end of his career as a hysterically inept magician barely managing, thanks only to the color of his skin, to find work. Like a giddy mash-up of The Canterbury Tales and Carnivale, we meet Rudy, the "Strongest Man in the World" (who actually is far from it), Jenny the Ossified Girl (who, as a woman passively rejected by Henry, is best able to tell the doomed tale of his One True Love), JJ the Barker (who seems to confuse his own childhood memories -- specifically his feelings about his father -- with those of Henry), and Jeremiah Mosgrove, the proprietor of Mosgrove's Chinese Circus (which is in no way Chinese), as well as a few other figures who emerge from Henry's past, both real and imagined.
Each of these characters is privy only to a particular part of Henry's life story, parts which eventually connect even as they contradict each other. Depending on who is doing the telling, Henry is depicted by turns as a miracle worker, a broken-down con artist, a heartsick lover, or a lost soul in perpetual mourning over his departed family, still seeking revenge against the man who took it all away from him. Or all of the above.
The stunning centerpiece of the novel concerns Henry's love for his stage assistant, the willowy, troubled Marianne La Fleur, a creature ever fluttering on the border between Life and Death. Henry conceives a magic show -- part trickery, part séance -- around an eerie aspect of their relationship that has his audiences gasping simultaneously in admiration and utter horror.
Henry ultimately defines himself by his losses; his signature card trick involves the Three of Hearts: one heart each for his departed mother, his vanished sister, and his unattainable Marianne. And being the performer, knowing the foul secrets of his magic disallows Henry the gifts of wonder and hope and laughter he is able to bestow upon his audiences. Believing in nothing, he is shrouded in his own lies and illusions.
It won't be until he encounters a trio of hoodlum hecklers that Henry at last remembers magic isn't about the trick, believing isn't always about the truth, and that his illusions don't have to be as real as he's made them. The Devil, as it turns out, really isn't in the details -- those small, beautiful, ordinary moments of our lives. It's the fact that we take such moments for granted that is a true evil.
"Only love can take us to the darkest places," a character eventually remarks, underlining the double-edged, tragic-comic nature both of this story and of the approach Wallace takes in telling it.
Following three works of, essentially, shorter fiction, with Mr. Sebastian Wallace inherits the storied mantle in American Letters previously shouldered by Ray Bradbury, master of simultaneously sentimental and wicked observation -- a delicate and bittersweet trick indeed, one capable of revealing the innermost chambers of the human heart. (This book, in fact, makes a fitting companion to Bradbury’s equally wonderstruck carnival tale Something Wicked This Way Comes.) We might allow magicians to trick us, but it's love that will ultimately make fools of us all.
Meanwhile, the sideshow parade only seems familiar to the Wallace canon -- circus freaks peopled the Big Fish movie, but the citizenry of the novel was more mythical in nature; this is an illusion/allusion that Wallace, perhaps, fully intended -- here using freaks and misfits to mis-remember, mis-tell, and just plain mistake the true story of Henry Walker, and carry it into the realm of lofty folklore, reminding us how ordinary lives fit into the larger pattern of human history.
The tale, as such, flows like an unexpectedly long string of particolored handkerchiefs from the pocket of a skilled and charming prestidigitator, one who always keeps a knowing eyebrow lifted towards his audience, luring them with a recognizable trick, only to unleash an unexpected but heartbreakingly appropriate flourish at the end -- a tale that is transcendently amusing in its variety, startling in its unregulated humor, bewitching in its final originality. This is, simply enough, one of the best, most captivating books of the year. And it's impossible not to wonder what tricks Daniel Wallace yet has hidden up his sleeve.
Originally published in the Mobile Register as "Bigger Fish Swim in Wallace's Latest," Aug 19 2007