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Trade Secrets

John Wray's lay of the land.

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If you've read Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, you may recall Twain writing to his wife about a conversation he'd heard between a boat captain and a "frock-coated Tom Thumb." The dapper, four-and-a-half-foot gentleman was telling the captain about an odd, biologically based theory on race in America and an even odder, biblically based theory involving "renegade angels" and the country's slave population.

When asked for his opinion on these matters, Twain, dumbfounded, was "incapable of rational speech." But that same afternoon, Twain learned something else: The pint-sized gentleman he'd met the morning of June 7, 1860, was none other than Thaddeus Murel, a onetime horse thief, sometime preacher, and "notorious slave bandit." Murel's grim stock-in-trade: "The Trade," a business -- involving henchmen and investors both above and below the Mason-Dixon Line -- that made money, lots of it, freeing Southern blacks, reselling them to interim owners, and collecting the bounty when those slaves were returned to their original masters. Or they weren't returned. Maybe they were murdered, the bodies dumped without a trace into the Mississippi River.

With an eye to writing a novel about the Mississippi in the 19th century, prize-winning author John Wray (The Right Hand of Sleep) found Twain's passage "bizarre, grotesque, shocking," an episode whose tone set it apart from the rest of Life on the Mississippi. A month later, Wray was more surprised to find a near-paraphrase, in Spanish, of Twain's material on Murel in a story by Jorge Luis Borges. Wray read more: contemporary accounts of Murel; a fictional account in a short story by Eudora Welty. Then Wray set to work on his own account.

The result is Canaan's Tongue (Knopf), a tour de force of period re-creation delivered in a half-dozen or so first-person narratives set from 1856 to 1863. The reader's main guide is the half-Jewish, semi-blind false-seer Virgil Isaiah Dante Ball, a young drifter who prides himself on being a son of the Enlightenment but who lets himself be guided into the Trade by a "plain-faced dumpling of a man" named Thaddeus H. Morelle (aka the Redeemer) and his gang of abolitionizers-for-profit: an epileptic landowner's son; a stuttering sodomite; a lisping "nigger-runner"; a kidnapping mulatto; a cool-headed colonel; and, at the real root of these various evils, an unholy, kabala-inspired mystery man named Parson.

Clementine Gilchrist, the New Orleans whore who wins Ball's heart, is the lone female voice, but the pivotal setting for Ball's undoing isn't the Crescent City. It's the Bluff City, half in ruins when Ball arrives to deliver a cargo of black men -- the city's streets littered with victims of yellow fever and Ball determined to rid himself of Morelle.

It's a horrific vision of America that Wray describes, and it's a history not without its 21st-century variant he believes: this national appetite for the irrational and the violent; for belief systems and profit systems; for election and the language of the elected (aka "Canaan's tongue").

"I wrote this fantasy of 19th-century America as a way of talking about today's America," Wray says, "as a way of understanding the forces at work: ambition, opportunism, the use of religion. The Bush administration is a good case study -- its cynical exploitation of people's failings and weaknesses and, at the same time, its almost mystical belief in its own election, in both senses of that word."

Life on the Mississippi? Consider Canaan's Tongue to be life, yesterday and today, in these dark United States.

John Wray will read from and sign copies of Canaan's Tongue at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Monday, June 20th, at 6 p.m. and at Square Books in Oxford on Tuesday, June 21st, at 5 p.m.

Rollin' on the River

Say you're an author, and say you're on tour. Why fly when you can float from booksigning to booksigning?

That's what John Wray is doing this month to promote his new novel, Canaan's Tongue, which is set in mid-19th-century New Orleans, Memphis, and points in between.

The Mississippi River is the book's great waterway, and Wray means to travel it too, from Memphis to New Orleans, on a raft he's built in Brooklyn, where he lives. A raft made out of materials from Home Depot. A raft in eight sections, each section weighing around a hundred pounds. Sections that Wray is going to load inside a U-Haul and drive to Memphis, where he's launching the Southern leg of his book tour. Then he's going to launch the raft (some assembly required) into the Mississippi to reach his booksigning dates in Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. What about his signings in Oxford and Jackson? Some driving required.

A wild idea? Not according to the author.

"I'm very excited," Wray says. "It's something I'll have some control over, as opposed to waiting around for book reviews to happen. I've done things similar in spirit -- some backpacking, some mountain climbing. And I'll have a friend, a merchant marine, to act as the token expert on the trip. We'll be pitching a tent on the bank at night."

But to be on the safe side, the U-Haul won't be somewhere nearby?

"No, no, no! The truck is only to get the raft from New York to Memphis," Wray explains. "Nobody's following us. [pause] Actually, having that U-Haul might be a good idea."

Another good idea, before Wray's raft even hits the water: some barbecue, Memphis-style.

Wray got to know the city years ago when he was dating a girl from Memphis. He got to know The Peabody, and he got to know some good eating.

"Whether I like a city or not generally has to do with my stomach," he admits. "I've had too much great barbecue in Memphis to not love the place.

?My sister lives just outside of Nashville. Will this article be read in Nashville? No? Good. I’m free to speak my mind. I don’t like Nashville. It’s got a wonderful history. I grew up on country music. But Opryland, downtown Nashville ... They’ve been Disneyfied. Memphis is more like Buffalo, where I went to high school: a grand old city with its own culture, its own charm. I’m planning on a table at the Rendezvous right now.?

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