A winning, freshly voiced debut novel by the author of several children's stories (The Southernmost Cat, 1996, etc.), about one of the nation's odder celebrities, Joshua Norton, who declared himself Emperor of the United States in San Francisco in 1865—and became a beloved ornament of the city as a result. Cech's novel-within-a-novel purports to be Norton's biography, as compiled by a Boston man (at the urgings of Mark Twain), a printer's devil who has gone west with the forty-niners in quest of gold. The arduous journey includes a marvelously rendered rounding of the Cape of Good Hope; later, when the captain dies of cholera in Frisco Bay, his wife dismantles the ship's timbers and starts up a boardinghouse. While shilling for her, the narrator meets Norton, an ambitious, well-heeled, naive but pig-headed British Jew from North Africa. Norton buys and sells cargoes, and builds and rents buildings, doing well in those boomtown days. Meanwhile, a palm- reader confirms for Norton what his mother told him as a child, that he is the son of the Catholic Emperor of France, a pedigree that he takes with absolute seriousness. Then a failed investment in Peruvian rice wipes out his fortune. Verging on suicide, he attends a sÇance and is told to look for a lake of gold, so he and the ever-willing narrator set off, successfully finding the lake and a little gold but also facing a shootout with bandits. The bandits are, at any rate, too late: Norton has already invested his gold dust with a passing balloonist. Finally, broke and despairing, he goes mad, reinventing himself as Norton I, the Emperor. Festooned in a gaudy uniform, he spends the remainder of his life attending San Francisco's civic events, greeting visitors to the city, and becoming himself one of the great early tourist attractions. Richly imagined and extremely well written, a tale Twain would have loved.
Read full book review >