Some subjects are so grim that, when it comes to fiction, they're most effectively approached through comedy and adventure. Mark Twain knew this, and made his strongest anti-slavery work a picaresque yarn told in the irresistibly American voice of an uneducated boy. James McBride follows suit in his hugely enjoyable African-American variation on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Good Lord Bird." McBride's novel is on the short list for this year's National Book Award, and deservedly so.
If I knew the minute I started it that "The Good Lord Bird" was my kind of book, I was less sure of Michael Boatman's reading. Best known as the narrator of James Patterson's Alex Cross novels, Boatman chooses a slightly high-pitched, twangy, front-porch raconteur voice for the book's first-person narrator. (The conceit is that the novel consists of the journals of Henry Shackleford, discovered in a burnt-out church basement.) Recall Sen. R. Clayton 'Clay' Davis, Isiah Whitlock Jr.'s character from "The Wire," with his recurrent exclamation of "sheeeeit!" and you'll have a sense.
As soon as Boatman got past the framing preamble and started in on Henry's voice, I reached for the volume button on my earbuds and turned it down. I contemplated bailing on the audiobook in favor of the print version then and there, but decided to stick it out. And I'm glad I did. Henry -- whose enslaved father is accidentally killed in a barroom altercation involving the radical abolitionist John Brown and whom Brown then whisks away to "freedom" -- is only nine when the novel begins, an undersized, obstreperous, balky, occasionally whiny child, as selfish and shortsighted as kids tend to be. But just as Twain's novel follows the moral awakening of Huck, McBride is taking Henry on a related journey, and Boatman's voice grows up along with the character.
Brown mistakes Henry for a girl, and, partly out of cowardice, Henry -- who earns the nickname Onion for chomping on a particularly ripe specimen of the vegetable -- spends most of the action disguised as such, unwillingly caught up in Brown's uncompromising crusade to end "the infernal institution." If Huck has to learn to distinguish right and wrong for himself, Henry must discover the value of asserting the truth, about himself and the world around him, in the face of often frightening consequences. Like Huck, he acquires this understanding through his relationship with a man of another race -- Brown, a character Boatman performs so magnificently that he completely conquered my initial trepidation.
"The Good Lord Bird" careens through a series of often hilarious exploits and encounters. Henry, frequently a fly on history's less prepossessing walls, spends time working in a whorehouse, camping out in the woods with Brown's army, traveling north to visit Frederick Douglass (a very irreverent take on the activist) and meeting all sorts of people, from drunken "rebels" to incredibly brave, defiant slaves. It's a view of the antebellum world refreshingly free of pieties, and full of questions about the capacity of human beings to act on their sense of right and wrong, about why the world is the way it is, and what any one of us can do to make it better. It's the rare comic novel that delves so deep.
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