What a rumbustious and rich tale this is. Set in the United States in the mid-19th century, it deals in a complex and vertiginous manner with the Civil War and the issue of slavery. The central character, Liberty Fish, is born in the north, but after fighting in the war visits his grandparents in the south.

Cover of The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen WrightLiberty is aptly named. Influenced by his parents and his own strong feelings, he abhors racial servitude. As a child he shared fishing and walking and companionship with Euclid, who has weals on his back as a mark of his suffering as a black man. His mother Roxana deserted her southern family as a young woman in order to escape the iniquitous culture of slavery.

His father, a man of principle and kindness, suffers depressive moods and teaches his son that the word “nigger” is never to be used. It is typical of Wright’s linguistic energy and dexterity that these moods are described as “the wings of melancholy, great batlike creatures who hung in shadowy suspension from the pocked and darkly gleaming walls of his caverned self.”

Liberty is told by his mother that there are no rules. An anarchist pirate, who lives in the ground, tells Liberty: “Death to all tyrants, freedom to all in bondage and to us a glittering chest of fat gold.” He takes these words to heart and is shocked in battle by a fallen standard that bears the legend THE SUPREMACY OF THE WHITE RACE. That is the very supremacy which Liberty has joined the Union army to overthrow: it is for him essential to defeat the view that one “Can’t have civilisation without slavery”.

Before he departs to join the military chaos, he travels to Niagara on a canal with his father and then on to New York.

In New York the lust for money and speed is described: “Speed equals specie.” And there is a reference to the “daily frenzy and banknotes”. Liberty tries laughing gas and casually loses his virginity. A traveller expounds on “sublimity and terror” to be told by Liberty’s father that “America abounds in both qualities.” Indeed, the novel is full of the sublimity and terror of America.

God and the Bible are used to justify the ways of man to man in the slavery debate. Yet God does not seem powerful. Liberty, distressed when he hears his mother crying, prays to a dubious God “he could neither fully believe in nor fully reject.” God is mocked in the names of the mules: “God Almighty”, “Jesus Christ”, “Judas Priest”.

Neither does the transformation of vital bodies to dead meat in battle speak of a benign deity. Liberty regards a place where there are thousands of lost souls and wonders whether “God were actually as deaf and dumb as He often seemed.”

Liberty had always thought the world a strange place. As a child he had thought there was emotion and feeling behind physical objects. He later suspects that behind the mundane daily events “lurked layer upon unexamined layer of outright strangeness.”

When he reaches North Carolina his grandparents prove true to form. The grandmother is so frail that she can do nothing except curse the abolitionists; she cannot even utter her grandson’s name, the word “liberty” not being in her vocabulary.

Meanwhile Liberty’s grandfather is conducting bizarre eugenic experiments by copulating with black slaves in the hope of turning the race white. He is trying to find a eugenic way out of the belief that “servitude of course is justified in Genesis and Leviticus.” This racial amalgamation is seen by Liberty as genealogical anarchy and he refuses to take part in it.

The Amalgamation Polka takes Liberty Fish, its broad cast of characters and its readers on an extraordinary journey, a “rumstuginous affair” in which all is tempered by “existence revealed as a rudderless spin through absolute darkness”. ■

The Amalgamation Polka is published by Faber and Faber