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CANAAN’S TONGUE by John Wray Kirkus Star


by John Wray

Pub Date: June 1st, 2005
ISBN: 1-4000-4086-8
Publisher: Knopf

A plot to resell escaped slaves and the wisdom of the kabala are ingeniously linked, in Whiting Award winner Wray’s ambitious successor to his superb debut (The Right Hand of Sleep, 2001).

Its shaping actions predate the Civil War, as self-proclaimed “redeemer” Thaddeus Morelle (a dwarf swollen with gigantic ambitions) assembles several criminal companions as “the Island 37 Gang” (so named for their hideaway, moribund Geburah Plantation in Mississippi, located in a neverland between Union and Confederate jurisdictions). The Gang includes a stuttering assassin (Kennedy), an introverted “intriguer” (Parson), “molly-coddled” demi-aristocrat Asa Twist (“madman and heir to this estate”), handsome half-caste Oliver Delamare (entrusted with luring “fellow” blacks to their doom) and major protagonist Virgil Ball: half-Jewish, cursed with a sightless “dead eye” (in which Morelle sees prophetic potential), and a flawed sensibility that makes him equally vulnerable to Morelle’s serpentine charisma and his own hunger for wealth and security. Their story is an increasingly horrific one, of ironic accommodation to the momentum of history (since “Abolitionizing” threatens their “Trade,” they yearn for war), internecine struggles and accumulating betrayals, the kidnapping and detention of the forthright whore (Clementine Gilchrist) with whom Virgil hopes to build a respectable life, and a chain of savage murders that reveals a cunning pattern—a realization of their perverse Redeemer’s quest to ascend the “ladder of the spirit” as one of “the Elect” (who speak a language known as “Canaan’s tongue”). But the author of this plot is, in several senses, not the man he seems. Wray relates these fiery materials in a stunning narrative composed of multiple voices: an epic of violence and greed and inescapable judgment that somewhat resembles—and arguably surpasses in richness and power—Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Wray is the real thing, and Canaan’s Tongue is itself a masterpiece.