God's Fool

God's Fool

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by Mark Slouka

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Born attached at the chest, Chang and Eng were considered a marvel, an omen, an act of God, evidence of His glory or proof of His wrath. Uniquely cursed, enslaved to one another for life, they were a joke of nature variously feared and abhorred, disturbing our most basic assumptions about the human condition. Mark Slouka’s dazzling achievement in God’s


Born attached at the chest, Chang and Eng were considered a marvel, an omen, an act of God, evidence of His glory or proof of His wrath. Uniquely cursed, enslaved to one another for life, they were a joke of nature variously feared and abhorred, disturbing our most basic assumptions about the human condition. Mark Slouka’s dazzling achievement in God’s Fool is the ease and compassion with which he draws the story of one human being from this ghastly predicament. Looking beyond the twins’ physical connection, he imagines one man’s life of ordinary grace and suffering, longing and resistance, and the ties of love, as well as of blood, that bind and redeem us all.

By any standard, theirs is a history of epic variety and drama. Their birth, to an illiterate fishmonger, sent midwives screaming from the room. Condemned to death, they survived to be brought, at the age of thirteen, to the Royal Palace in Bangkok for an audience with King Rama III. At seventeen, laboring as merchants on the Meklong River, they saw their world erased by a typhoon. Consigned for three hundred pounds to an opium trader by their mother, who was desperate to ensure their survival, they sailed for Europe. There they entertained kings and counselors in salons and drawing rooms from Brussels to Rome, and, in Paris, met the woman who would divide them as no surgeon ever could.

When the culture that had lifted them up inevitably cast them down, they landed in the flophouses of London, where, penniless and starving, they were discovered by Phineas T. Barnum, who packed them off to America along with an assortment of bearded ladies and two-headed calves, albino beauties and dog boys, German midgets and twelve-fingered flute players. Leaving Barnum at the height of their fame to take a last stab at normal life, they settled in North Carolina, where, despite the tensions growing between them, they found, for a time, tranquillity as farmers and slave owners, marrying a pair of sisters and fathering, between them, twenty children. Their peace, however, would prove to be short-lived. As the Civil War drew closer, and their world began to tilt, they would first turn against each other and then, faced with a trial unlike any they
had ever known, draw together once more. No longer young, they set off to find the war, and to save what could be saved. It would be there, on that very real battlefield, that Chang would enact his final, terrifying battle with fate.

Sweeping and intimate, vibrant and austere, God’s Fool is a novel of soaring ambition and accomplishment from a fiercely gifted storyteller.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Siamese twins Chang and Eng, who caused a sensation 160 years ago, when they were exhibited by P.T. Barnum, still hold a mysterious fascination Slouka's version of their story is the second novel dedicated to their vicissitudes in the last two years (the other being Darin Strauss's Chang and Eng). Chang, at the beginning of the book, is in his declining years. He and Eng have become sworn enemies at one point they even try to kill one another. Their enmity comes after they retire from Barnum's American Museum and buy a plantation, with its complement of slaves, in North Carolina, and Eng, much to Chang's chagrin, becomes a fundamentalist Christian. While Eng approves of Chang's marital relations with his wife, Addy, both brothers remember Chang's first affair: it was in Paris, their first season in Europe, with Sophia Marchant, a famous beauty. Chang's memories move toward her and away, as he trawls his past, going back to his and Eng's first astonishing appearance in the world (at the sight of the two, their mother's midwives fled). From a Siamese notoriety the king of Siam's astrologers took their birth as an evil omen they move to Europe, under the aegis of Robert Hunter, an opium trader and impresario. Slouka, a gifted stylist, eschews much of the freak-show energy that thrust Chang and Eng onto the stage of world history, in favor of an alluring balance between the elegiac and the ironic. National advertising; author tour. (May 23) FYI: Slouka's critically acclaimed short story collection, Lost Lake, is out in paperback from Vintage. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Slouka's exceptional first novel opens with a description of an apple fight among young Confederate soldiers awaiting orders from General Longstreet to begin the infamous Pickett's charge. Reflecting on this, the narrator (father to one of the boys) asks, "What manner of God ... would turn them, laughing, to blood and bone?" The same God, it turns out, who would cause one of them to eat so many green apples that he ends up sick, pants around his ankles, as his comrades march off to their doom. We are all God's fools, it seems. While this episode lies at the heart of the novel, the narrative is quite wide-ranging. The boy's father happens to be Chang, one of the famous Siamese twins brought to America by Phineas Barnum, and it is his (and, inevitably, his brother Eng's) story that Soulka details. This fascinating tale traces their birth and childhood in Siam, their travels and abandonment in Europe, the Barnum years, and their lives as slaveholding farmers in North Carolina (something of any irony in itself). Part historical novel, part commentary on the human condition, this powerful and often poetic novel belongs on the shelves of all public and most academic libraries. David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another absorbing and poignant first novel (after Darin Strauss's Chang and Eng, 2000) about the life journey of the first Siamese twins in recorded history. Slouka (stories: Lost Lake, 1998, etc.) begins his tale in Civil War North Carolina with Chang, the point-of-view character here, reflecting on a life spent bonded to his brother Eng. The fresh images and fascinating allusions in his narrative bring to vivid life Siam, Paris, London, New York City, and the American South during the first half of the 19th century. Chang first contemplates the day over fifty years before when he and his brother, joined at the shoulders by "a small, fleshy bridge," horrified midwives in Siam. With scant attention to the ways the boys accommodate each other, Chang remembers their warm childhood. When a typhoon takes their father's life, the maturing twins are forced to accept an entrepreneur's offer to become a traveling theatrical attraction in Europe. Parisians regard them as beautiful, a special gift of God. Chang falls rapturously in love with one of them, Sophia Marchant, while Eng patiently reads on at Chang's side. Then a friend suggests to Chang that Marchant's attraction springs from a fetish with the abnormal. The devastating news follows that the twins are destitute, their managers having vanished. Fleeing to the fetid streets of London, the two grub for coins by allowing passers-by to touch their attachment. An agent for P.T. Barnum rescues them, offering work in New York City. Here, Eng's growing preoccupation with religion threatens the brothers' bond, as does the oncoming Civil War. The conflict between them over bringing slaves into their homes escalates into a physical quarrel thatleaves both of them nearly dead. Yet when Eng ultimately comforts Chang, bereft from the disappearance of his beloved son in the war, their brotherly bond survives. Splendid, with notable film potential.
From the Publisher
"If you can read [this] novel without being astonished and touched, then you'd better check to see if your heart is made of stone . . . simply brilliant. A book of the year." —The Dallas Morning News

"Slouka writes with the bare-bones ferocity of Jerzy Kosinski and the visual intensity of John Updike." —Boston Herald

“Exceptionally beautiful. . . . [A] story where the power of language and of reflection on the nature of connection is more essential, and compelling, than any retelling of historical events.” —The Washington Post Book World

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt

In a vertical world, a world of men like pines, or posts, more separate than they know, we were born with a bridge. A small, fleshy bridge, a handspan long and half as thick (thick enough for a boy to march his soldiers across if he watched their steps and they kept in file), forever connecting our two principalities like an act of God, the will of the citizens to hate one another be damned. If a life were measured by the number of metaphors it gives occasion to, the opportunities it presents to journalistic hacks and carnival barkers, ours has been rich indeed; in the field of grammar alone we have been wealthy beyond measure, a veritable primer made flesh. We were the hyphenated twins, as that nice young man writing for La Quotidienne once put it. We were a living conjunction, an if or an and or a but where a full stop would have been both correct and kind. We were separate sentences spliced with a comma, an error come alive. I could go on.

The day we were born, the midwives ran from our monstrous birth, leaving our mother to cut her own cord, untwist and bathe us. Twenty years later, the citizens of two continents came running to stare. I despised them about equally. I never changed. I see this now as my essential trait: Pushed to the wall by man or God, I pushed back. If the world showed its teeth, I rubbed it against the fur. I was born that way, and if I were to live to be as old as Methuselah, I'd be that way still.

Little Charlie Stratton, who could stand in a teacup, once preached me a sermon on Christian acceptance. "We must accept our fate with humility and gratitude," he hectored me in that mad-duck voice of his, and I remember being tempted to add, "and milk it like an udder until it runs dry," but didn't, distracted, I suppose, by the furious little digit he poked at my stomach with each stressed syllable (ac-cept our fate with hu-mi-lity and gra-titude), like a schoolteacher trapped in a child's dream. Oh, but how he made us cringe, Barnum's "little brick," posing and primping for councillors and queens: now Romulus bravely attacking a vase, now Cain with a club the size of a quill, now Crusoe in furs like a shipwrecked squirrel. But we were separate cases, Charlie and I. Humility is prudent when you're the size of a hat.

Acceptance was not in my nature. Even as a young man it seemed to me that everywhere the world conspired against the heart, and though I knew the heart would lose, I couldn't bear to call it right. It seemed unjust to me that those we had come to know should have to leave us, that the mowers resting in the shade had to rise, that perfection passed. Gideon liked to claim that my melancholy grew the more I watered it, but it wasn't the wine that made the passing of things so hard for me, just as it isn't the port by my side that makes me miss him now. No, like God, I had a jealous nature. I would have kept him here, you see. Drawn a circle around him, as I would around all the ones I've known and loved. And some besides. And in that circle, their heads thrown back through a warm ray of sun (the mark of my benediction), the mowers could laugh forever, one leg up and one leg out as the handles of their tools slowly moldered to dust and the blades of their scythes sank down in the grass. But the circle didn't hold. I couldn't hold it. Except once, maybe.

Before the attack on Cemetery Ridge, they say, Pickett's men waited in the woods by the edge of the open fields, watching the milkweed drifting in the air like a lost squall. They knew. Every man and boy among them. Some scribbled quick notes against the stocks of their rifles or their brothers' backs or the stones of the old mossed walls that ran through those woods like stitches through a quilt, marking borders long forgotten–"To Miss Masie," "To My Father," "In Case of My Death"–then pinned them to their shirts. Most just sat with their backs against the trees, their caps hung lightly on their bayonets, waiting.

No one spoke. A bee buzzed on a turtlehead blooming in the damp, climbed up the tongue. A hot blade of sun lit the moss on a boulder, cut the toes off a boot. Here and there men lay sprawled on the previous season's leaves, staring up through the layered branches as if into the milky eye of heaven itself. Further off, where an old road cut light through the roof of leaves, a photographer in a black vest and a wide-brimmed hat went about his business, hurrying back and forth from a small, square wagon.

Suddenly a canteen went over with a clank; a cut leaf twirled slowly to the ground. Like sleepers waking, they raised their heads. A private's hat flew from a branch. They leaped to their feet. The floor of the forest, an overgrown orchard, was stippled with apples, small and hard as hickory nuts. Within seconds the shade was alive with joyful, savage shouting. Men sprinted for the breastworks of pasture walls and broken trees, one hand holding their caps to their heads, the other cradling their bulging shirts, lumpy with ammunition. Some said afterward that a strange sort of dream seemed to come over that glade. For a short space of time, they one and all seemed to forget where they were. The wavering heat, the ridge, the order–soon to come–to advance across the open fields (an order Longstreet himself would have to give with a nod, unable to bring himself to speak): All these faded away like distance on a summer afternoon, and they played. As children will play. As though death were a story to scare them to bed, and scarce worth believing.

And I ask you: What manner of God would stop them? Would bring down his foot? Would turn them, laughing, to blood and bone?

I see Christopher there, my little boy grown tall and lean, his wrists protruding a full three inches from the sleeves. I can feel his thrill at a solid hit, the sting of a little green ball in his side. I've imagined myself there so often now that my imagining has taken on the color of memory. You say this is wrong? Who was it, I want to know, who first divided history from dream, who ran his finger down the ranges of the past and decreed a frontier where none had been? When was the treaty that gave us this damnable map, and who gave it authority? No, I'll say it once and be done with it: There is no frontier, in this world or any other, that love or desire or pain can't cross.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Mark Slouka's story "The Woodcarver's Tale" won a National Magazine Award in Fiction for Harper's in 1995. He is a graduate of Columbia and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, Penn State, and the University of Virginia. He lives in California with his wife and two children. Lost Lake is his first work of fiction

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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God's Fool 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is not only beautifully written, it touches on the very basic of human feelings, but from a unique viewpoint. I really enjoyed this novel, and highly recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'God's Fool' truly touches the soul, forcing us to reflect on all the discrimination, lack of acceptance, and insensitivity that exists in this world. If everyone would read this book then there would a lot more tolerance and acceptance for those that are 'different' in all forms and ways.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mark Slouka's "God's Fool" is a refreshing, lyrical, lively work of historical fiction. Origional and non-formulaic it offers an exciting plot, engaging characters, themes concerning the nature of the individual, community, and culture. The book abounds with literary references, placed like prizes in an Easter egg hunt, making the reader feel accomplished and connected with the highly sophisicated narrator and the author himself. A seemingly clear parallel exists between this story and "The Idiot" by Dostoyevsky. One may view Chang, the narrator, as, partly, a cynically enlightened Prince Myshkin; a man assaulted by depravity and hypocrisy but whose conscience and sensibility has,nevertheless, survived. Eggheads everywhere may also detect images reminicent of Francisco Goya's grim grostesqueries, "Drowning Dog" in particular, coloring the sadder passages. One criticism, at times the tone waxes too lyrical, hardly a big issue but less is always more. Try it, you'll like it.