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Gambler’s Nephew by Jack Matthews (Book Review)

imagePrint Editions: $12.44 ( as of Sept 6/2011) AmazonBarnes & Noble ; Print Version Available (240 pages). Ebook: None.

Estruscan Books, 2011  Author Website.

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.

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