Summary: A highly readable and historically accurate story about how an accidental killing of a slave in 19th century USA affects various families and communities. A old-fashioned yarn told with cunning and irony.
Rating: 5 Stars.
Recommended if you like: Mark Twain, books about pre-Civil War and the South, novels that depict a panorama of characters (a la Dickens), John Gardner’s Grendel, William Kennedy, Saul Bellow
I am a fan of this taut and brooding novel about 19th century America. It centers around the accidental killing of a slave by an abolitionist while trying to save him and a murder that occurs as a consequence. Matthews has tackled historical subjects before. His story collection Tales of an Ohio Land dramatizes historical events while his earlier novel, Sassafras, depicts a phrenologist who travels along the wild frontier in the 19th century. Unlike the allegorical and satirical Sassafras, Gambler tackles more social and ethical issues, depicting 19th century morality in ways that would make the modern reader squeamish. Matthews doesn’t pass judgment on beliefs and superstitions which might seem repugnant to the the modern reader. Instead Gambler’s Nephew shows how people lived with such beliefs while still professing themselves to be religious and upstanding. Reading this book, one can’t help wondering what aspects of our behavior will seem barbaric to future generations.
I’ve always enjoyed the short fiction of Jack Matthews, and I’m happy to report that this novel is profound without being ponderous. It’s also a fast read. Even though the action turns around the abolitionist and his brother, neither has much actual “stage time.” Instead the novel is populated with servants, jailers, steamboat captains and slaves. The last third of the novel centers around the journals of Lysander Crenshaw, the “upright” slave owner whose slave was accidentally killed by Dawes. This part is slower and more deliberative (a contrast to the rapid pace of Books One and Two). The key thing, I think, is recognizing the parallels between Nehemiah the abolitionist and the slave owner; both were guided by moral impulses and both were troubled by the guilt of their decisions.
Here are three things I like about this novel. First, a lot of characters are rounded out and treated with sympathy and dignity. There are no villains here: only wounded or misguided people. Second, despite the book’s tragic dimension, there is also a lot of humor: in the dialogue, in the casual observations, in the character descriptions. (I particularly recommend the prison scene where a condemned prisoner named Biddle attempts to bribe his jailer for some alcohol — a scene which is both horrifying and hilarious). Each chapter expands the story by introducing a new character; at the end, the reader has traveled all the way back to the slave owner’s plantation during the slave’s escape … and stumbled upon surprises along the way. Finally, the book is littered with quips and diction and one liners which enliven every page. Example: “Two month old puppies chase their own tails; we don’t have tails to chase, so we chase imponderable questions.”
See Also: This disclaimer about reviewing books.