A magician conjures abject failure in Wallace’s (The Watermelon King, 2003, etc.) bleak fourth.
Glum protagonist Henry Walker is first seen as a ten year old growing up in a dismal hotel where his drunken father toils as a janitor (after losing his fortune to the Crash and his wife to TB). Henry’s sister is his dearest companion until he encounters Mr. Sebastian in Room 702. An otherworldly man with a chalk-white complexion, Sebastian trains Henry in the dark arts, then disappears, spiriting Hannah away. After a police investigation turns up no clues, Henry’s father reluctantly apprentices him to a talent agent, Tom Hailey, who, thinking Henry will be more marketable as a Negro magician, places him on a regimen of pigmentation pills. World War II intervenes and Henry (white again) garners a rep for magically deflecting bullets and bombs in France. Upon landing in New York Harbor, he’s taken up by an ambitious manager, Eddie Kastenbaum. However, when Henry raises his beloved assistant, and Hannah surrogate, Marianne, from the dead, his career tanks prematurely. In dreamlike sequences, Henry revisits Room 702, trying to parse the enigma of Hannah and Mr. Sebastian. Is Mr. Sebastian really the Devil? Did he murder Hannah? Did Henry kill Mr. Sebastian with a stunt knife? A private eye and the denizens of a traveling Southern circus where Henry has washed up—his magical powers much diminished—narrate their recollections and speculations over an 11-day period in May 1954. The voices of the individual narrators, including the circus proprietor, a strongman and a lady of stone, are as unconvincing as their motives in caring so deeply about Henry, an aloof cipher in their midst. The framing incident, which opens and closes the novel, is the abduction of Henry (now in blackface) by three racist thugs who beat him nearly to death, stopping only when someone accidentally wipes the shoe polish from his face.
Quietly elegiac but unnecessarily convoluted tale of missed connections and rotten luck.