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The Amalgamation Polka

3.45  ·  Rating Details ·  348 Ratings  ·  54 Reviews
Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a bright star in the literary sky," Stephen Wright now extends his astonishing accomplishment with a Civil War novel unlike any other.

Born in 1844 in bucolic upstate New York, Liberty Fish is the son of fervent abolitionists as well as the grandson of Carolina slaveholders even more dedicated to their cause. Thus follows a childhoo
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published February 14th 2006 by Knopf (first published 2006)
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May 05, 2011 Adam rated it it was amazing
Like the similarly named deadpan comic the author Wright is bizarre, comic, grotesque, and sometimes beautiful and brilliant. Written in dense sometimes stunning prose with the ability to switch from slapstick to profundity and tragedy without jarring the tone and mood, Wright examines the incredibly important years before and during America’s civil war without reducing it to banalities seemingly acted out by museum reenactors that a lot examinations of the era proffer us. Our failed revolution ...more
Oct 08, 2008 Derek rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A largely successful but imperfect historical novel, The Amalgamation Polka offered a colorful and convincingly violent portrait of a Union soldier's journey "home" during the American Civil War. The plot was an interesting one, relaying the protagonist's (groaningly named Liberty) abandonment of his soldierly duties and his efforts to locate the Southern slave-owning grandparents he never knew. The author's voice, leaden with appositives that stretch sentences to the length of paragraphs and pa ...more
May 16, 2016 Jason rated it it was amazing
Absolutely stunning novel. Why I have put off reading it so long would perplex, if not for the somewhat dubious title and the general abundance of books ever penetrating my sphere. I truly believe that Wright's Going Native is one of the very greatest American post-war novels, especially of the relatively unsung variety. The Amalgamation Polka resembles it not a jot, save its also being eminently American. It is a novel of horror, beauty, and great robust humor. Imagine if Mark Twain had written ...more
Brian Kim
Okay. I can pinpoint where this book went wrong for me. When you name a mulatto character SLAVERY and place her in a room completely painted WHITE where she has been held captive all her life by her slave master who is also her father, and she is being forced to have sex with a white man named LIBERTY in order to rid her body further of black skin color and this all takes place in a plantation called REDEMPTION HALL, where LIBERTY ends up not having sex with her but attempts to FREE her... Yeah. ...more
Alia S
Apr 11, 2015 Alia S rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-2015
A random read: I pulled it off the library shelf for its title, kept it for the cover art and the Civil War setting. The story was engaging but the writing is intolerable. "Be prepared for a lot of rereading,” warns the jacket copy, “due to the vibrant beauty and savory brilliance of every paragraph.” What? I don’t know what all these gushing reviewers are talking about: Rushdie is “rich”; Wright is overwrought; Diaz is “idiosyncratic”; Wright’s just a dude with a thesaurus and tendency to ornam ...more
Cheryl Gatling
It has been said by a number of people that the institution of slavery damages everyone involved in it. The slaves, obviously, are brutalized, but slave-owners suffer, too, whether they recognize it or not, for they must become brutes, and lose their humanity. This book is, among other things, an illustration of the long reach of the many-tentacled institution of slavery, destroying lives willy-nilly. Roxana Maury is the daughter of a South Carolina plantation. She doesn't have the stomach for i ...more
Pris robichaud
Jan 04, 2009 Pris robichaud rated it it was amazing

Both the Real Thing and A Merciless Parody, 1 Feb 2007

"Wright's title refers to a racist editorial cartoon of the period, which depicted "an amalgamation polka," where whites and blacks dance together in genteel costumes. This was meant to suggest, one presumes, that other mutually enjoyable physical activities might occur between the races later in the evening. Race mixing was the great shibboleth of slavery advocates and segregationists from the dawn of American history almost to our own tim
Nov 29, 2011 Maduck831 rated it liked it
It’s a boy,” Aroline declared flatly, thrusting into dramatic view a wailing, wriggling, shimmery thing of mottled red and blue that Roxana recognized instantly as a glistening piece of her own heart.” (15) “One idle afternoon, several months after Liberty’s passing under the tutelage of Ma’am L’Orange, Thatcher – curious as to the health of his son’s academic life – inquired casually, “Who is the president of the United States?” / “Jesus Christ,” Liberty promptly answered. / Father looked at Mo ...more
Mar 17, 2008 Rick rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The most recent novel by a gifted writer, The Amalgamation Polka channels Mark Twain with mixed results. There are brilliant set pieces and bizarre misfires, particularly at the end. Wonderfully rich dialogue and descriptions—you can’t beat the opening sentence: “The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud.”--but a sense that all characters share the same speechwriter. Freedom Fish is the son of a daughter of the South who, because of her abolitionist-leanings, fled north as a teenager. Roxana an ...more
Mar 18, 2008 Ellis rated it did not like it
Shelves: fiction
This book was pretty annoying to me. I sort of glossed over the beginning of the book because nothing seemed to grab my attention. The protagonist’s parents were involved in the Underground Railroad, and, early on, I thought that was what this book would be about. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Instead, this fine young man, Liberty Fish, joined the Union army when he was almost 17. Apparently, this was done because of his great desire to bring the slaves their due freedom.

After Liberty h
Wu Ming
Dec 29, 2010 Wu Ming rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
WM4: "Le donne barbute ballavano nel fango". Sembra il verso di un pezzo punk rock, invece è l'attacco di Amalgamation Polka (Einaudi Stile Libero, euro 16,50), quarto romanzo dell'eclettico Stephen Wright e già caso letterario negli Stati Uniti. Incipit straniante per un titolo ancora più strambo, tratto da una vignetta satirica di metà Ottocento che rappresenta la danza dei bianchi abolizionisti insieme ai neri vestiti a festa. Sì, perché il romanzo parla del conflitto politico che ha spaccato ...more
Curt Buchmeier
Nov 01, 2014 Curt Buchmeier rated it really liked it
This is "an acquired taste" read, I'm pretty sure. Started out rather slowly; for me the first 75 pages I'd guess. Once the hero, Liberty Fish (I know; that's his name), takes a trip on a boat as a young boy with his father down the Erie Canal to an abolitionist meeting, at which point Wright does a masterful job with dialogue and setting and the plot picks up significantly. Wright's style and pacing are unique, humorous and familiar all at the same time. This was my first read of Stephen Wright ...more
Jun 04, 2010 Ruth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
323 pages.

Race relations before and during the civil war.

Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a bright star in the literary sky,” Stephen Wright now extends his astonishing accomplishment with a Civil War novel unlike any other.

Born in 1844 in bucolic upstate New York, Liberty Fish is the son of fervent abolitionists as well as the grandson of Carolina slaveholders even more dedicated to their cause. Thus follows a childhood limned with fugitive slaves moving through hidden passageways in t
Jan 09, 2008 Tung rated it really liked it
The latest novel from the author of Meditations in Green (my top book of the year for 2003), this book is based on a picture drawn during the 1800s that shows African-American men dancing with high society white women with the caption “The Amalgamation Polka”. But this book is less about one picture, and more about America during the Civil War and its struggle with the issue of slavery. The novel focuses on Liberty Fish, the son of abolitionists, and it traces his time as a youth growing up in a ...more
Jan 17, 2015 Louis rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mes contacts avec Stephen Wright sont le fruit du hasard. Il y a vingt ans, mon ami Pierre Lemieux m’avait incité à m’abonner au Quality Paperback Book Club, où l’un de mes premiers achats fut Going Native, un recueil de nouvelles déguisé en roman, choisi dans la liste sur un coup de tête, lu, apprécié, puis oublé. Puis, cet automne, Hélène m’accompagnait dans une de mes expéditions au 3e étage du Bonenfant quand elle a choisi, un peu au hasard, un roman de la collection «Du monde entier» de Gal ...more
Jul 16, 2012 Jenny rated it liked it
The tone in this is quite uneven, starting as a humorous and richly-detailed coming of age tale, transitioning into a more straight-forward Civil War narrative, and then going off the rails in the last 100 pages in a grotesque depiction of a fallen southern plantation family. Despite the unevenness, I was happy to go along for the journey up until that last third because of the beauty and inventiveness of the author's use of language. My attention strayed in the last few chapters, though, becaus ...more
May 05, 2010 Elaine rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Stephen Wright is, if not THE best, certainly one of THE best 21st century writers. His verbal pyrotechnics amaze. You hear, smell, see, and feel what is going on, both through a child's sensory input, and then an adult's. At other times, he allows you to sit back and just listen and watch.

The plot takes place between the 1840's through The Civil War, which is presented both through Northern and Southern eyes. People often think of that war starting with the firing upon Fort Sumter, but the fig
Aug 09, 2008 Charlaralotte rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2008
Another great story along the lines of "The History of the Known World," though a bit less tremendously depressing. Well-researched story of family in North with ties to the South and horrors of Civil War. Started a bit slowly, though once Liberty & his father take a trip up the Erie Canal, there's great pleasure in the details of travel, strange characters met en route, wonderful descriptions of diversions of the time period.

Liberty's experiences on the battlefield not weighed down by usua
Nov 07, 2007 John rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I might revise my rating on further reflection, but he is possibly my favorite modern author, and I went in with expectations the book didn't meet. Not that it wasn't good; a Civil War story written, for the most part, in the style of the period, which doesn't sound like my thing, but it was a surprisingly easy read. Maybe too easy; after three novels of poetic darkness, full of hallucinatory imagery, this was shockingly simple and direct. Oh, it started off with a gang of bearded ladies and inc ...more
Bookmarks Magazine

Is it a curse or a blessing that the work of idiosyncratically original writers prompts the most divisive reviews? There's no preordained slot for Steven Wright (Going Native; Meditations in Green), so his fictions have to be read with an open mind and, perhaps, a predisposition for his "dark, hallucinatory world" (New York Times). The main point of dissension centers on whether Wright has balanced the strains of parody and the grotesque carefully enough. Critics also disagree about whether the

Jul 14, 2009 Ckbiffster rated it it was amazing
i haven't read any other civil war novels, so i can't compare this one in context--but i feel confident in saying that there probably aren't any other civil war novels like it. i am a big fan of wright's previous work, which is about as postmodern as it gets. so i was curious how he would handle such weighty and thoroughly-covered territory.
i really liked the way he appropriated certain stylistic aspects of 19th century literature--most prominently baroque, complex sentences/paragraphs in a way
Kurt Gottschalk
This was a hard book for me to read. There is some deep cruelty in the storyline and readers should be prepared for more darknesses than the Civil War setting would suggest. But that wasn't my problem - I'm able to withstand more than many people in books and movies. My problem was more in caring.

The book can roughly be divided into four parts and it's rare in any part for their to be more than one character the elicits any empathy. The story is inventive, unpredictable and (otherwise) well tol
Nov 09, 2009 Joanna rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Joanna by: MEFB
This book started out as nothing less than fabulous storytelling about an era of American history (prior to and during the Civil War) that I actually know very little about, and I adored Liberty Fish from the moment of his birth. However, the story took a decided turn towards the bizarro the moment that Liberty set foot on the grounds of his ancestral plantation, Redemption Hall. Of course it was simply lovely to share my commute with Michael Emerson's phenomenal acting (he makes an excellent sm ...more
Dec 05, 2008 Kilean rated it liked it
Devilishly talented writer that reminds me a lot of Pynchon but he's pretty damn distinct in his own right when it comes to story/characters/ideas. Loads of extravagant prose on display here. Whole thing is set during the time of the civil war and follows the life of Liberty Fish, son of abolitionist parents from upstate New York. And it's entirely unlike anything I've ever read that has anything to do with the Civil War. I'd probably give this more stars but I personally like a few of this auth ...more
Jul 30, 2008 Jeremy rated it liked it
This book really deserved all the praise that sparked my initial interest. It's a good story. It's well-, if over-, written. I'm sure that it's full of deep meaning and symbology and bears up well upon repeated readings.

However, all the verbage - while unique, exquisitely correct, and often beautiful - serves to obfuscate the story rather than elucidate it. The story also seems a bit thin and is not particularly compelling.

I'm glad I read this book, but it's not one that I'll likely find myself
Kirby Gann
Jul 23, 2013 Kirby Gann rated it really liked it
I can only strive to be as wild and visionary a writer as Stephen Wright—a novelist who should be heralded with the other big names of his generation (Pynchon, DeLillo, Denis Johnson, etc). A criminally undervalued artist whose work appears about as often as an eclipse. Depending on one's taste as a reader, I'd say start here, then go to Meditations in Green, then Going Native (one could start there, too), and then M31: A Family Romance.
Apr 30, 2011 Hannah rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
I wish this book was a little bit better.

It's a Faulknerian romp through the civil war, with a decidedly contemporary sensibility. It's funny, hyperbolic, and spot-on in some of its observations and fascinations. But it's the sort of book you'd write about in your dissertation because it's interesting, not because it moved you.

Nov 12, 2011 Alison rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those who wished Cold Mountain was more like Catch-22.
I loved this book and I don't often like novels about the US Civil War. Wright's language is extravagantly lush and gorgeous. The plot is rollicking, occasionally grotesque and at its best when it deviates quite far afield of what you might expect (and believe me, it does) into absurd picaresque. It's also very, very funny.
cal shepard
Aug 27, 2011 cal shepard rated it really liked it
I've just started this - the author has an interesting writing style! Some sentences are so sublime that I have to go back and reread them over and over again!
OK now I have finished it. I really liked this book strange as it was. The story took a back seat for me to the author's writing style - which was terrific! (Unlike MY writing in this comment!)
Christopher Roth
May 29, 2016 Christopher Roth rated it it was amazing
Why isn't this book more famous? A bizarre meditation on race in America, told through the story of an Abolitionist-raised New York soldier in the Civil War who seeks out his estranged grandparents who run a South Carolina plantation and finds the place to be a surreal, gothic charnel house of eugenic experimentation.
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Stephen Wright (born 1946) is a novelist based in New York City known for his use of surrealistic imagery and dark comedy. His work has varied from hallucinatory accounts of war (Meditations in Green), a family drama among UFO cultists (M31: A Family Romance), carnivalesque novel on a serial killer(Going Native), to a picaresque taking place during the Civil War ("The Amalgamation Polka"). He has ...more
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“But what Liberty would remember best was the feel of his own small hand gathered in the warm, comforting grip of the man, those times alone when all of Thatcher’s potent attention was concentrated on his son, as something inside Liberty always insisted, occasionally to contrary evidence that it should be, their trips together, their talks, the information about the sorry state of the world Thatcher shared reluctantly, almost sadly, with his son and heir out of a conviction that I do not enjoy having to tell you these things, but it is important you hear this news, no matter how distasteful, because, unfortunately, it is the truth, whereas it is lies and the promulgation of lies that will make you and the people in your life sick.” 1 likes
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