by Daniel Wallace; Touchstone, 2013; 277 pages; $24
Daniel Wallace writes books that readers immediately want to share. “Big Fish,” his first and best-known novel, is that sort of experience. It’s a tale full of — well, tales — a wondrous amalgam of family, myth, small towns and big ponds, grand miracles and tiny moments and above all, the need for connection and for love.
And, oh, Wallace isn’t afraid to cut loose, to risk it all the way he does in “Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician,” his last novel the magic of which surpasses that of “Big Fish.”
Well, I’m here to tell you the magic of “The Kings and Queens of Roam” is boundless. Just listen to what he tells us about love and the loss of it: “It’s not just a feeling: it’s a real thing inside of you made of paper-thin glass, and when it breaks the shards move through your blood and cut you to pieces.”
Two sisters, known to the people of Roam as “the girls,” are the legacy of town founder Elijah McCallister, a man abandoned by his parents at the age of 7. For a while, McCallister’s Roam was “usurping the world like a hungry machine,” riding high on the silk trade. A generation or so later, the Roam of ugly Helen and blind Rachel McCallister has become home to “pointless structures, huge empty warehouses, and beautiful roads leading nowhere” — populated by ghosts who remember — well, sort of remember — the way things were.
Rachel eventually leaves Roam, angry at having discovered Helen’s deceit about what Rachel has been able to see. But Rachel and Helen’s story isn’t about revenge. It is about connection, about meeting halfway on the 100-year-old bridge over the ravine that separates Roam from everything else in the world.
And it’s about the importance of the stories we tell. Helen makes that discovery as she and her pint-size gentleman caller Digby (the local barkeep) begin the reclamation of the dying city. “She felt like she was finally becoming human, because out of all the life on Earth this is the one thing only people do. What other animal tells stories? Or more important: what other animal listens?”
There are a lot of stories from, and about, the McCallister clan, past and present. Some stories echo myth, some echo theology. Some bring laughter, some bring tears. All are rendered with the tenderness we have come to expect from a writer in full control of the magic he weaves.
Late in “The Kings and Queens of Roam,” Daniel Wallace reminds us that “a storyteller makes up things to help other people; a liar makes up things to help himself.” Daniel Wallace ain’t no liar, folks. He certainly ain’t no liar.
Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.