|By William Kennedy
(Penguin Books - 1988)
Reviewed by Trace Edward Zaber
|or the past several years, Ive noticed a trend in Illinois (and for all I know, it might be happening throughout the States and in other countries) where, for several weeks or months, independent book dealers take over abandoned stores and offer table upon table of discontinued or over-stocked books. In the time it takes to blink, however, these temporary stores vamoose, making way for the next liquor or shoe retailer whove signed a permanent lease. But for those few weeks that these book-stacked tables are filling a space that will eventually become the next Chain-Saws R Us, I find myself drawn to them, continually searching the Chicago suburbs for any storefront with the words Books—Cheap printed on equally cheap yellow banners peeking through soap-smeared windows. I suppose Im drawn to these shops, not only because of their bargain-basement prices, but because of the gems Ive chanced upon.
One such gem is Quinns Book, by William Kennedy, the author of Ironweed.
During one of my more recent drooling-while-hunting adventures, the cover of Quinns Book caught my eye—in truth, its a decidedly bland black-and-white affair (which, in my opinion, rather matches the yawn-worthy title), yet features a tintype of a formally-dressed 19th-Century gent. That was the key! Needless to say, my fascination for the Victorian era in America immediately coerced me to snatch the book in my greedy hand (despite the title) and rush with the cartload of my other finds to the chintzy, and temporary, cash register.
Well, Quinns Book sat for months on the growing mountain of to-be-one-day-read books (again, I suspect, due to the non-inspiring title), but finally, just this past week, I opened that bland cover and instantly got sucked into a powerful and beautifully written tale. I could kick myself for not having done it sooner . . .
I, Daniel Quinn, neither the first nor the last of a line of such Quinns, set eyes on Maud the wondrous on a late December day in 1849 on the banks of the river of aristrocrats and paupers, just as the great courtesan, Magdelena Colón, also known as La Última, a woman whose presence turned men into spittling, masturbating pigs, boarded a skiff to carry her across the rivers icy water from Albany to Greenbush, her first stop en route to the city of Troy, a community of iron, where later that evening she was scheduled to enact, yet again, her role as the lascivious Lais, that fabled prostitute who spurned Demosthenes gold and yielded without fee to Diogenes, the virtuous, impecunious tub-dweller.
The opening paragraph . . . A mouthful? Certainly! But intriguing? Without a doubt.
Who is this Maud? I asked myself. And Magdelena? And who exactly is Daniel Quinn, whom I quickly discovered is a teen-aged orphan from whose young, sarcastic, and already-jaded eyes the story rapidly unfolds?
The back-cover blurb says it best . . .
Filled with Dickensian characters, a vivid sense of history, and a marvelously inventive humor.
Dickensian to say the least.
What we have here is a story including love (both lustful and pure), murder (both premeditated and random), history (both realistic and poignant).
We have 19th-Century spiritualism, theater, and horse-racing, coupled with 19th-Century blood, hatred, and vulgarity.
We have secret societies, whose members would go so far as to viciously remove the tongue of a man who dares expose their agenda; we have tawdry orgies that not only shatter the myth of Victorian decency, but have the power to bring dead characters to life; we have the carnage of the Civil War on bloody battlefields, the brutal New York draft riots, and the plight of the Irish immigrant; we have the dangerous yet inventive Underground Railroad, the dazzling fund-raising movements for the Northern war-effort, and the rat-terrier fights in dilapidated backrooms of sleezy grogshops.
And through it all, we have snappish and witty dialogue, vivid and breathtaking descriptions, and poetic and old-worldly prose, all in the space of less than 300 pages.
In short, what we have here is a masterpiece.