Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life and Crimes

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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.

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Notorious Christopher Bram

Novelist Christopher Bram is best known for Father of Frankenstein, basis for the Academy Award-winning film Gods and Monsters. But his profile and popularity will likely skyrocket with the arrival of The Notorious Dr. August: His Life and Crimes, a dense tapestry of a novel spanning centuries and brimming with brio. Bram deftly entwines several themes, including music, memory, and the fuzzy yet defining nature of sexuality. Through all of the rich historical detail and often-anguished musings on time, sex, sin, redemption, and reality itself, Bram's powerful central characters and story line hold fast, delivering an accomplished, rare piece of contemporary fiction.

As the story begins, the narrator, born Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd in New York City in 1850, accompanies his lascivious uncle on a musical tour through the war-ravaged South in 1864. Boyd's uncle is abusing young Fitz, that much is clear. However, in a harbinger of the novel's complex ethics, the narrator doesn't seem too troubled by his uncle's advances: "But I cannot claim that his bedtime attentions were torture...his erratic needs gave me a useful trump card in our constant contest of master and servant." Severe repercussions -- more than Fitz or the reader can project -- will follow.

The future Dr. August also displays an intense musical involvement that borders on the supernatural: "Here at the piano I can finger the keys to unlock my thoughts and memories," he explains. Any lover of music will delight in the musical reveries that accompany many crucial moments in the novel, including a surreal sequence near the end where Fitz loses himself completely in his piano -- and Bram's fine descriptions echo Thomas Mann's

But these musical passages are integral amplifications, not mere digressions, woven directly into the central plot. And what a series of adventures awaits Fitz: captured by Confederate soldiers; accompanying an emancipated slave on a Faulkner-like journey to bury his master; exploring the brothels of New York. All this before developing the persona of "Dr. August, musical clairvoyant," who tells his subject's futures (and pasts) by playing the piano in their presence and gaining access to what is either an inner world of spirits or possibly a fraud. In any event, he devises a method of combining two standard 19th-century entertainment practices into one wildly successful routine, at which he's accompanied by Isaac, the freed slave who soon becomes his lover.

The engaging plot takes Dr. August and his ever-increasing band of associates across the United States, to England and the salons of noted mystic Madame Blavatsky, and even to Constantinople, ending back on Coney Island in the 1920s. But the themes of music, the supernatural, and the ethics of sexuality are what hold this sometimes bewildering novel together. Late in the story, when August seems to have finally settled after finding an old brothel friend now turned society lady, he shatters his life by becoming involved with her 14-year old son. And, just as his own adolescent sexual awakenings with a lecherous relation are sublimated only by time, Dr. August is unwilling to discuss this current transgression in clear moral terms, even suggesting that the boy precipitated events.

The ensuing tragedies ensure that fate, at least, looks askance on this coupling, but -- as in Mike Leigh's film "Naked," in which the protagonist is first introduced while attempting a back alley rape -- The Notorious Dr. August is impossible to read without beginning to understand the workings of Dr. August's mind and, therefore, to question his blunt ethics. Given Bram's care and audacity, this revelation feels designed and, ultimately, earned. Thorny, sprawling, catalytic, The Notorious Dr. August captivates.

—Jake Kreilkamp

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: 5/28/2001
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: 1ST PERENN
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 1,299,171
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Bram

Christopher Bram is the author of eight other novels, including Gods and Monsters (originally titled Father of Frankenstein), which was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Bram was a 2001 Guggenheim Fellow and received the 2003 Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. He lives in New York City.

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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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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Christopher Bram is my favorite contemporary writer. And DR AUGU

    Christopher Bram is my favorite contemporary writer. And DR AUGUST my
    favorite novel. It's as good - if not better than GODS AND MONSTERS.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    You will notice upon reading "Dr. August" how quickly paced the story is. Never dwelling too much on any one moment, it is a brisk and consuming read. Yet Bram leaves nothing out, and creates a real world before, during, and after the turn

    The Notorious Dr. August by Christopher Bram

    Mr. Bram tells the story of Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd, alias Dr. August, a clairvoyant second rate pianist who communes with ghosts. Dr. August finds meaning in his life through a strange love triangle with a righteous ex-slave, and a nervous white governess.

    Spanning the years between the 1860's and the early b1920's the novel displays the talents of its author working at the height of his career.

    You will notice upon reading "Dr. August" how quickly paced the story is. Never dwelling too much on any one moment, it is a brisk and consuming read. Yet Bram leaves nothing out, and creates a real world before, during, and after the turn of the century.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2000

    a supernatural novel

    a wonderfully written novel.. bram's finesse with words rivals a meal from a master chef. forget the 'real life' aspect of the title.. the work is fiction, spanning the years from the civil war to the era just before world war one. bram's characters.. and there are really only five.. breathe with a life that's unique to most novels nowadays, and to be honest, i broke down in tears when i finished the book.. i'd grown that close to several of the characters. all of them make horribly wrong decisions along the way, and the impact of those decisions are rich, fascinating and thoroughly believable. after finishing this book, i read bram's 'father of frankenstein,' and truly believe him to be one of the new millennium's finest new authors.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2000

    Great read

    This is my first Bram novel and I must say I was very impressed. I will certainly read his past novels. The interesting characters as well as the the details of the period help to formulate a very unique historical read. Highly recommended.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2000

    A Rollercoaster of Wit, Candor & Glorious Storytelling

    Christopher Bram has done it again. What a gift to modern literature this superb writer is. This offbeat tale is mesmerizing. Though this tale is not as specific nor as sexy as 'The Father of Frankenstein', it has its own luxuriant sexuality. Bram is right up there with the great historic novelists of our day: E. L. Doctorow and Gore Vidal. I can't wait to get my hands on the next Bram opus.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2000

    Hold Tight to this book

    In the begining is where the fun starts and ceases to let you free until the final sentence. Bram knows literature, music, the spirit world, and throws in a gay character or two just to spice up the story and keep the exposition hoping. This is a wonderfully written novel which draws you in with history and when you put the book down you have to think for a second and realize that it was a work of fiction. His historical references are so vivid that you sometimes question yourself if this is in fact a fictional work. All in all this was an amazing novel, one everyone should read; gay or straight, this book hits your heart and plays with your mind. Very impressive.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2000

    The best work of a talented author.

    This book was a great pleasure to read and I highly recommend it. Having read all of Mr. Bram's novels I feel confident in saying that this is his best work to date. Bram¿s skill in combining imaginative fiction with well-researched fact, (read also ¿Almost History¿), is used here to great effect. I came away feeling that I had shared a lifetime with Augustus Fitzwilliam Boyd, (a.k.a. Dr. August), and what a life it was. From the civil war South to Coney Island in the 1920¿s with Paris, London and Constantinople in between, the book explores themes of love, loss, family, religion and the spirit world. The history through which the story passes is so richly detailed that it becomes a character in itself, and the musical references throughout make it the closest I¿ve come to reading a novel with a soundtrack. If you¿re interested in taking a journey through a life and its times, I can¿t think of a more fascination guide than ¿the notorious¿ Dr. August.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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