By John Wray. Knopf. 341 pp. $25
John Wray's disturbing novel about slave runners can trace its inspiration to America's fascination with that peculiar line of hypnotic personalities who pursue their dreams by manipulating others' fantasies. From the dazzling illusions of Michael Milken to the romantic spells of Jay Gatsby to the malleable persona of Ben Franklin, certain national celebrities -- real and fictional -- have understood the power of controlling others' beliefs in a country that cherishes individual choice. Herman Melville explored the sinister nature of that power in his difficult, mind-bending novel The Confidence Man. And appropriately enough, the very first novel written in America, Wieland (1798), by Charles Brockden Brown, is about a mesmeric ventriloquist who wreaks havoc on a family in Pennsylvania by manipulating their thoughts. We can even peer back further, to Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (1610), to see a vision of pre-America where a powerful man maintains control by creating and sustaining illusions.
Canaan's Tongue is based on a legend about a "soul-moving" preacher named John Murrell, whom Mark Twain described in Life on the Mississippi. Murrell allegedly controlled a vast crime network of more than a thousand people, many of them otherwise respectable citizens. Popular opinion considers Jesse James the greatest crook, Twain writes, but Murrell "was his equal in boldness; in pluck; in rapacity; in cruelty, brutality, heartlessness, treachery, and in general and comprehensive vileness and shamelessness; and very much his superior in some larger aspects." (Full disclosure: Jesse James was a distant relative of mine.)
Murrell started as a horse thief but quickly moved to a far more lucrative trade in human flesh. His agents promised slaves that if they ran away and allowed themselves to be resold elsewhere, they could share in the profits. With this cruel scheme, Murrell's gang could recycle a slave three or four times before murdering him.
Legend holds that Murrell, whom Wray calls Morelle, was arrested, served time in prison and finally died an old man, but the novel imagines an earlier, more elaborate death scene that exemplifies America's susceptibility to mental manipulation. The story opens during the Civil War on Island 37, a no man's land in the middle of the Mississippi River between Louisiana and Mississippi. The last four leaders of Morelle's gang and a few hangers-on are hiding from North and South. But there is no honor among these thieves. Morelle has already been stabbed in the neck with a piece of glass and stuffed down a privy hole. And now his contentious minions have discovered that another one of them -- a lisping ex-Mormon -- has been poisoned. Their slave starts digging extra graves in grim anticipation. Panic runs through them "like fat through a strip of bacon."
"My life's not worth a pig's kidney," thinks Virgil, the prime suspect. "The story I mean to tell will be a right cameo of this nation, truer than a daguerreotype, more telling than the Constitution. It's the story of the Trade, and of my twists and turns inside it -- : the crimes that I committed, the blasphemies I abetted, the passions I conceived."
Virgil joined the gang seven years earlier, he tells us, long after leaving his father's Methodist faith to pursue a strictly rational, scientific life that had left him destitute. He met Morelle by chance at a revival meeting. "The Redeemer," as everybody called him, was just "a delicate, sallow-faced, limp-haired dwarf, in a suit that looked cut out of butcher's paper," but his flamboyant performance -- a touch of Donald Trump, a dash of Truman Capote -- captured Virgil's mind and sealed his fate. He introduced himself afterward, and Morelle offered him a job and this advice: "You're an American, sirrah -- ; not an Egyptian or a Swede. Without an understanding of belief -- without a sympathy for it, a talent for it -- you will never make your penny. . . . Belief flows through this country like a river. There is not a thing to match it. Compared to belief, the Mississippi is a trickle down a pant-leg."
Little did Virgil know that even in those initial moments of contact, Morelle was planting the seeds of mental influence, a power he would use over the next seven years to make Virgil commit all manner of ghastly crimes against others and his own nature as he ferried slaves through their sleight-of-hand system of false hope and murder. His assignments take him to Shiloh on one of the bloodiest days of the Civil War and into a fever epidemic in New Orleans that seems like a vision from Hieronymus Bosch.
Among the many haunting scenes that Wray depicts is a kind of seance in which Morelle holds a match painfully close to Virgil's globulous white eye and reads the future. It's all part of the Redeemer's vague theology, which mixes Indian myths with Christian eschatology and Jewish mysticism. His assistant, a sepulchral creep named Parson who glides around "like a dressmaker's doll," holds the key to an occult language called "Canaan's Tongue" that promises them all immortality.
Virgil narrates most of this lurid novel himself, but other members of the gang deliver testimonies of their own that provide further clues and mysteries about Morelle's method and madness. Each of them offers the Redeemer some cherished faith through which he can insinuate his influence, an influence that continues to confound and shock them even after his death. Their voices, mingling in the fetid, fear-soaked confines of the tiny island, compose a narrative at once repellant and irresistible, equal parts Faulkner, Morrison and Poe. The gothic horror of Canaan's Tongue sometimes grows too shrill to proclaim its critique of American culture clearly, but Wray's magnetic hold on our imagination never flags, and that, in the end, is his most effective demonstration of the power that haunts this faithful land. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.