AMERICAN GOLD by Ernest Seeman
Kirkus Star


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American Gold is not the masterpiece that you'll loudly be told it is--after a perfect and stunning opening chapter, it sets out in various directions and never quite follows any of them--but Seeman's 40-year-old vignettes of a North Carolina tobacco town's rise to commercial nirvana and moral decay cartwheel along with still-surprising lurches of language and an honest energy born of love and anger. The anger, mixed with a sort of grudging admiration, is heaped on Carolina's Big Business--from its Civil War beginnings (the poor Warham kids sell bags of the leaf to Union soldiers) to the Warhams' Rockefeller-inspired monopolizing and exploitation of labor, with inevitable effects: ""The slums followed the mills naturally, as the tide the moon, the flea the dog."" The empire-builders learn that they can ""shenanigate"" any law and control history (""Just think what a war would do for the tobacco business!""). And Seeman's equally fierce love is lavished on the ""good goof us citizenry"" of Warham (read Durham)--on a shortlived Chinese laundryman, on Jewish and black cigarette-makers, and, above all, on Anna Pulaski and John Anders: Anna is the girl who came to town as the circus' child balloonist (her aerial view of Warham is that superb opening chapter) and settled down; John is an endearingly autobiographical figure, a printshop assistant who plays the clarinet, who wants to write, who shudders as his town becomes a ""creature of stone and metal."" Unfortunately, married Anna and young John's romance is one of the book's several false moves--with a painfully contrived melodrama ending. Equally jarring are a mannered send-up of nouveau-fiche society and the often overstated, dated (in tone) muckraking. And one wonders how much of the too-fragmented effect throughout is due to injudicious cutting of a once-massive manuscript. No masterpiece then. But there are moments here that out-leap anything seen recently in native fiction, and--as an earth-colored mosaic with some forgivable bumps and hollows--it can be enjoyed by just about anybody from down home all the way to your friendly neighborhood ivory tower.

Pub Date: April 14th, 1978
Publisher: Dial