Thanks to Tim Burton’s movie adaptation, Daniel Wallace has become best known for his novel Big Fish – but his latest book, Mr. Sebastian And The Negro Magician, shows us that he’s still a wordsmith at heart. Despite the title, this is largely the story of Henry Walker. Or maybe that should be ‘stories’, as Wallace presents us with more than one account of events, and, eventually, more than one truth. Just as Henry Walker bases his career on his ability to sustain an illusion, so Wallace can make reality disappear with a wave of his pen.
Henry Walker is the Negro Magician of the title, a down-on-his-luck attraction in Musgrove’s Chinese Circus (which, incidentally, has never included a single Chinese person – already the layers of illusion are starting to pile up). Appearing alongside the likes of Rudy, the Strongest Man in the Entire World, and the tragic Ossified Girl, Henry peddles some poorly executed card tricks for his paying audience. The only thing that makes him stand out from the crowd is the fact that he’s dark-skinned – and that brings with it some problems of its own.
When three bigoted young men take an interest in Henry, it seems that his days are numbered, and even an intervention from his strongman friend Rudy can’t deter them (Rudy may be strong, but he’s also a hopeless alcoholic). The young men kidnap Henry and drive him out to a deserted field, where they proceed to deliver a ferocious beating, one of the few moments when Wallace reigns in his literary flourishes in favour of a brutal realism. It’s only when they go to wipe his face that they discover Henry’s secret – for the darkness wipes away easily, revealing his light skin beneath. The Negro Magician is not a Negro at all.
This is only the first of Wallace’s many sleights of hand, as he weaves together the story of Henry’s life from the testimony of a variety of different characters. We see Henry growing up in a hotel where his father was the janitor, and his apprenticeship to the mysterious man in room 702, the pale-faced magician known as Mr. Sebastian. Henry believes that Mr. Sebastian may be the devil, especially when he disappears on the same day that Henry’s sister Hannah vanishes. Encumbered with the knowledge that he may have contributed to his sister’s kidnapping, Henry’s life takes a turn for the worse – and for the weirder.
Given his subject matter it’s natural that Daniel Wallace should attempt some authorly tricks, and his multiple points of view allow him to play with the concepts of truth and illusion. By the end you’ll be uncertain whether Mr. Sebastian was the devil, whether he was actually several different people – or even if he existed at all. Despite the kaleidoscope of different perspectives, however, Wallace can’t help coming back to his own distinctive authorial voice, and at times it’s difficult to distinguish one narrator from another. When you have a voice that’s as witty as Wallace’s that’s no great complaint, but it can’t help weakening the believability of his narrators – and here, as in all illusions, believability is everything.
Mr. Sebastian And The Negro Magician provides a playful tour de force that leads us up one blind alley after another, but in the end it’s this very playfulness that undermines some of its effects. While Henry Walker’s life is undoubtedly intriguing, and the multiple points of view allow Wallace to toy with our perceptions and expectations, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in any kind of reality. The reader is left with little more than a series of outlandishly tall stories. Daniel Wallace may have pulled off one of the greatest conjuring tricks in the history of modern literature, but ultimately it’s just a little too fantastical to look like anything other than a large-scale illusion – which is a shame, as there are some valid insights into the concept of self-image buried among the card tricks and vanishing rabbits. A little more reality and a little less smoke and mirrors wouldn’t have gone amiss.