Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life and Crimes

Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life and Crimes

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by Christopher Bram
     
 

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Christopher Bram tells the story of Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd, alias Dr. August, a clairvoyant pianist who communes with ghosts, and who finds meaning in his life through a strange love triangle with a righteous ex-slave and nervous white governess. Spanning the years between the Civil War and the early 1920's, this riveting and ambitious historical novel displays

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Overview

Christopher Bram tells the story of Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd, alias Dr. August, a clairvoyant pianist who communes with ghosts, and who finds meaning in his life through a strange love triangle with a righteous ex-slave and nervous white governess. Spanning the years between the Civil War and the early 1920's, this riveting and ambitious historical novel displays the immense talents of a prodigious, highly esteemed author working at the height of his powers.

Editorial Reviews

NY Times Book Review
If only more novelists approached their craft with the imagination and skill of Christopher Bram.
LA Times Book Review
A truly gifted novelist.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Encompassing dramatic shifts in place and time, from the end of the Civil War to the heyday of Coney Island, this sprawling, splendidly imagined novel dramatizes Victorian age yet eminently familiar dilemmas of race, spirituality and sexual identity through the unforgettable journey of a wonderfully motley cast of characters. The eponymous pianist-cum-spiritualist, Augustus Fitzwilliam "Fitz" Boyd, first meets Isaac Kemp, his lifelong love, on a Civil War battlefield, where teenage Isaac is a slave accompanying his master's son. Augustus, himself only 14, has been captured after playing the flute to entertain the Union troops. When both boys are set free, they take off for New York, where, after various vicissitudes, clever, enterprising Isaac becomes Fitz's manager, traveling with him to his s ance-like piano concerts all over the world. Eventually, to Fitz's chagrin, Isaac takes a white wife, Alice Pangborn, a puritanical New England bluestocking. Soon the couple's two children are also traveling as part of the entourage of "Dr. August." At the height of his popularity, Fitz performs for the privileged classes on an international circuit; both the cultural landscape and the musical selections are detailed with beguiling immediacy. Though the surroundings are glamorous, Fitz and his clan find it difficult to make ends meet. So when they are invited to stay in Constantinople with an old acquaintance of Fitz's, once a whore and now a wealthy widow, they seize the chance--but a tragedy tests the bonds that hold their most unconventional family together. Bram (Father of Frankenstein; Almost History) tells his story through Fitz's own recollections as--late in life--he dictates his candid memoirs to Isaac's son, who has never known the full story of his family. Informed by sources as disparate as Ricky Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women and Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore, this provocative, imaginative exploration is generously endowed with evocative period details and rich characterizations of people from all walks of life. 6-city author tour. (June) FYI: Father of Frankenstein was the basis of the movie Gods and Monsters. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
It is difficult to summarize this latest work from Bram (Father of Frankenstein) without sounding tawdry and doing a disservice to his thought-provoking exploration of the human soul. Narrated by the effete Fitz Boyd, who works under the stage name of Dr. August in New York, Paris, London, and Constantinople, the novel ostensibly describes the life of an improvisational pianist working as a musician of the metaphysical, employing chicanery and parlor tricks to capitalize on the 19th-century fascination with the spirit world. But the novel is much more than that, using the complex relationships among Fitz, former slave Isaac Kemp, and Kemp's Caucasian wife, Alice, to explore the meaning of freedom. It is the challenge of discovering whether any one of us can be free of the past and choose the future that stands in such stark contrast to Dr. August's vaudeville tricks, making the novel such a complex and compelling read. Recommended for most collections.--Caroline M. Hallsworth, Sudbury P.L., Ont. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Larry Duplechan
A rich, mature work...Mr. Bram is utterly in command of his material throughout.
Lambda Book Report
Robert Plunket
This is quite simply, storytelling at its best.
The Advocate
Stacey D'Erasmo
It's an old sweet song of the uncanny, deftly and lovingly played.
Out
Paul Quarrington
[A] wonderful new novel...Indeed, the book is impressive if read only as a history of popular entertainment from the mid-19th century until the 1920's. But Bram's research serves a higher purpose; despite Dr. August's forays into the realm of the spirits, the novel is about what it means to be a human being in a complicated world.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A deeply felt novel about the "crimes" of love that ultimately brings fresh meaning to that tired phrase "family values." Stranded down south at Civil War's end, orphaned, 16-year-old New Yorker Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd meets up with Isaac, a soon-to-be-former slave. Heading north, the two pause in an abandoned house with a piano, where Fitz discovers not only his "music of the spheres" (which comes to him automatically at the piano) but his love for Isaac. In New York, Isaac finds work with a Jewish carpenter who has no qualms about his race, while Fitz works as a musician in a brothel. They live together as lovers (under the pretext that the black man is the white's servant), but Isaac, obsessed with their "sin," dreams of marrying and having children. When their physical relationship ends, Fitz has an affair with a society gentleman who introduces him to rich socialites longing for word from beyond the grave of their war dead. The act is only partly a con—Fitz truly believes in his otherworldly muse—and the socialites buy into it wholeheartedly. Soon, he takes the more impressive name of Dr. August and with Isaac as his manager embarks for Europe. There, Isaac marries a prim, brittle, white governess, Alice Pangborn, who bears him two children. (Blind, elderly Fitz, dictating to Isaac's son, is narrating.) After life goes disastrously awry, Isaac, filled with remorse over a tragic household event and guilt over the plight of his race back home, where lynching is epidemic, disappears. Fitz and Alice return to New York—vastly changed since their departure—to live, work, and raise the children together. Fromthebattlefields of the South to the spas of Europe to the fiery destruction of Coney Island, Bram (Gossip,1997; The Father of Frankenstein, 1995, etc.) conjures up a historical world true to itself, one that lingers in the mind like the final strains of an unforgettable symphony. Author tour

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060934972
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
05/28/2001
Series:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
1ST PERENN
Pages:
512
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.15(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Life is eternal, but lives are short. Immortality is my rock as well as my bread and butter. Yet I still love the mortal, the temporal, the physical-the luxuriant overcoat of the Oversoul. My own coat is in tatters, but I remain inordinately fond of it. As my sojourn here approaches its end, my Metaphysicals suggest that I record a few scenes from my time among naifs and knaves, gods and ghosts. And with the friend whom I loved for sixty years. Loved yet never understood. Perhaps I can begin to understand him now that he is dead. A message from the other side assures us that he has departed the world, this time for good.

Very well, then. I was born. In 1850 in New York.

I end my days in the city where I began, a fine irony for someone who has been out in the world and beyond. But we're in another part of that city, and a whole new century. When I was a boy, this was a mere village north of town, a handful of steeples and rooftops visible across the meadows from the promenade atop the high walls of the old reservoir at Forty-second Street. Now Harlem is a city within the city, a realm of squealing children and fussing mothers by day, laughing men, braying autos, and raucous new music by night. I like this music, loose, humorous grab bags of mood and melody performed by self-made royalties: King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Prince Jazz. It pours from the clubs when you walk me through the raccoon-furred crowds of Lenox Avenue on snowy evenings, a bald white crow in dark glasses on your tolerant, guiding arm, or insinuates itself through the ether into a radio cabinet in our snug little rooms outside time.

It has been a marvelous age ofinvention: radio, aeroplane, electric light, the telephone, and fellatio. Oh, yes, the last was invented in 1862. By Giacomo Barry Fitzwilliam, my uncle.

Well, he was not really an uncle but a distant cousin. And I suspected early on that he did not invent that intimate act, or it would not bear a Latin name. Uncle Jack was neither a Roman nor a priest. He was a musician, a gloomy violinist with drooping whiskers and the lean build of a bat or badly furled umbrella. He toured the smaller cities of the East as "the American Paganim," believing he paid Paganini a great compliment. Everything unkind that gets said of musical artists-that we are vain, petty, self-centered, and mad-can be said with perfect justice of Uncle Jack. 1 was his accompanist for a time, on the piano in smoky theaters and drafty town halls, aboard trains and coaches where I tended our luggage, and in the sagging beds of cheap boardinghouses. I was also adept on the melodeon, pipe organ, and transverse flute.

Aunt Ada turned me over to this pompous scarecrow when I was fourteen. Her tiny rooms on East Thirteenth Street, behind the Academy of Music, were crowded by her two ambitious, pushing, opera-singing daughters. "Augustus, you are in my way," "Augustus, take this note to the theater." "Augustus, you are in my chair." Their enormous balloon skirts squashed through doorways and whistled against the wallpaper, Quarters became more crowded still with the return of their adored brother, wounded at Chancellorsville, and there was no longer room for me.

We were a musical household, in the pseudo-Italian manner of Irish Protestants. A piano was always present, and I can no more remember learning to play than I remember learning to speak. I must have taken in some of my beautiful mother's gifts with her milk before she passed away in my infancy. Accompanying my cousins when they rehearsed for auditions or lullabying my aunt when she was incapacitated by headache, I first enjoyed music for the pleasure that it gave to other people. Orphans are quick to mistake the satisfaction of others for love.

Life with Uncle Jack quickly disabused me of that notion. But I cannot claim that his bedtime attentions were torture. He loved fame more than he loved the flesh, his own as well as mine, and he was the flautist there, believing I offered him a magic elixir of youth. All I had to do was lie back and enjoy. His erratic needs gave me a useful trump card in our constant contest of master and servant. I spent my early years living by the seat of my pants, including those occasions when I didn't wear any.

Should I speak of such things? I compose this for my Metaphysicals, and my own amusement, yet wonder now if some publisher might not remember the notorious Dr. August and offer money for his story, The Eternal is very fine, but it doesn't buy dinner. Form may follow function, but function follows cash. Never mind, Tristan. Write it all down, my recording angel, every word. Later we can delete and shape and lie.

The Notorious Dr. August. Copyright � by Christopher Bram. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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