Book Review Archives

Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician

By: Daniel Wallace
Reviewed by: Treasure Ingels-Thompson
Doubleday, 2007
$21.95, Hardcover

Exploring Faustian pacts, Daniel Wallace’s Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician rips the fabric of reality, slices the underbelly of American culture, and leaves the reader with few answers and numerous new questions.

Returning to the world of freaks and performers that Big Fish celebrates, Wallace proves that sometimes a surreal world inhabited by the disenchanted and the disenfranchised can be kinder than the world inhabited by the moneyed or the well-bred or the beautiful.

Peeking into the life of Henry Walker, a celebration in dichotomies, the reader finds that those things golden—fortune, success, beauty, and joy—can be taken away in the twinkling of an eye. Struggling as one of the world’s have-nots during the Great Depression, Henry seeks escape. The escape he finds is provided by Mr. Sebastian, a man so white that he glows. Where Henry’s father—once a prominent businessman now the janitor of the glorious hotel in which they inhabit the space between two rooms—has failed, Mr. Sebastian offers success. Providing escape from one reality via a path to another, Mr. Sebastian teaches Henry to control the cards within his hand and promises that those will help him control the cards of Fate.

The magic that he learns does strange things for Henry. It steals his sister. It protects him from the bullets of World War II. It makes him white and black and famous and invisible. It gives him an audience and leaves him alone. Through his life and world, the reader develops new understanding that reality is rarely what it seems. An investigation into Henry’s world and his magic reveals that he is "an exercise in subtraction…like a puddle in the sun: every day...smaller and smaller."

Setting his tale in the elusive carnival world against the most absurd backdrop of reality, Wallace relies on a cacophony of voices to describe Henry at different stages of his life. Through this lens, American society is revealed as a carnival itself where masks as opaque as black and white face paint become inadequate to concealing the humanity or monstrosity beneath. Finally, Henry is seen "for what he was...A man with a story."

Treasure Ingels-Thompson lives and writes in Montevallo.