A Novel
David Allan Cates
I've been wrestling with this son-of-a-bitch for three weeks now, trying to get it down. Problem is ... it's as weird as they get, cannot be pinned wriggling to the wall. It's weird, gripping, probably one of the best books ever to make you want to vomit when you get to the usual 19th Century subjects: slavery, the Civil War, the Wild West, murdering Indians ... honor, truth, beauty, light.

Freeman Walker (mother black, father white --- one eye very dark, the other blue) is educated as a proper Englishman, falls on hard times, works in a child-labor pest-house fronting on the Thames, comes back to the United States, is nabbed (he's 1/2 black ... thus in 1860s America, he's black) to do yeoman service in the killing fields, burying soldiers, with Saturn and Crow-boy in trenches "seven feet wide and three feet deep:"

    Saturn's mother had been a midwife, so he'd seen a lot of babies born, and he said even nigger babies were born white, and now he could see that dead white men turned black as ink, so everybody was born white and everybody died a nigger, and if it weren't for the in-between we'd all be one big loving family.

He was born James Gates but on his going about in America he changes his name as he is now free of shackles: "As Freeman Walker, I walked away. If freedom had given me no other options, it had given me this one."

He moves west, to gold country. Pure America, he claims, Last Best Chance City, "Swedes, Irish, Jews, Italians, Bohemians, English, German, African, Chinese, Mexican, and native --- all of us greedy, yearning, sweating, hiding, longing, hoping."

    We were full and drunk, yet thirstier and hungrier than we'd ever been in our lives.

Gold is everywhere, ready to be picked, and Freeman picks his share, salts it away, is rich ... until, the appearance in his visage, "my mother, it seemed, was still too near me --- in the color of my left eye, in the slight breadth of my nose and lips, and in the texture of my hair as it grew."

"Late one evening toward the end of that winter, a group of hooded thieves showed up at my shack and relieved me of the burden of my illusions."

    They also took my gold --- even almost all of my hidden treasure, which they located as though they'd been spying on me for months. When I dared to try to split the back of one of their heads with my shovel, I was promptly set on horseback with my wrists tied behind my back and a rope around my neck.

    "My crime?"

    "Bein' a nigger with gold," one of the hoods replied.

§     §     §

Historical fiction? Bildungsroman? Picaresque? How about all three .... and then some. It's a dandy travel book taking us through mid-19th Century America and England. It's a funny coming-of-age for a half-slave, half-freedman. It's crammed with characters from London, America, the battlefields, the graves, the old west: A father who carries the Declaration of Independence around in his pocket, a Jewish thief who always leaves half of the loot behind (in case his victims might need it), the Irish Colonel Cornelius O'Keefe, who led one of the many uprisings against the English. He appears as "Acting Governor" of the "Western Territory," arriving with a band of ghostly Irish soldiers: "One night he stopped, however, and I could see the reflection of his face grow grim. 'I've seen enough fighting,' he said, 'to last until eternity. And have you noticed how I'm trailed everywhere by the dead.'"

    I might have pretended not to hear, or I might have lied, but he'd charmed me into affection, and the peculiar intimacy of his voice coaxed the truth. "Yes," I said. Whispered. Breathed.

    "Aaah," he said.

    "I saw them when you came into town."

    "Indeed," he said...

There are two or three truly heroic characters in Freeman Walker. Freeman himself. Jean-Jean Epstein, the diminutive (and honest) thief. And the good Colonel, who heads off into the wild country to stop the trade in Indian lives, where settlers are paid gold for every scalp they bring in. The Colonel, Walker and their backup Belly are jailed but the divine frees them: lightning strikes their makeshift jail. Their return home is a trip worthy of Ulysses, traipsing up and down mountains, through streams, across deserts: one of the worst trips you or I (or Walker) has made or will ever make.

The Colonel, mad as a coot, is, alas, lost to us at the end. He represents "the light of the law" that should have protected Indians from losing their lands, their dignity and their scalps. In his dying fall, he reminds one, strangely, of the Great Gatsby. Who was, as you may recall, "worth more than all the rest."

--- Richard Saturday
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