American Follies

American Follies

by Norman Lock


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Joyce Carol Oates Prize Longlist

“[Norman Lock’s fiction] shimmers with glorious language, fluid rhythms, and complex insights.” —NPR

“Provocative, funny and sobering.” —Washington Post

In the seventh stand-alone book of The American Novels series, Ellen Finch, former stenographer to Henry James, recalls her time as an assistant to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, heroes of America’s woman suffrage movement, and her friendship with the diminutive Margaret, one of P. T. Barnum’s circus “eccentrics.” When her infant son is kidnapped by the Klan, Ellen, Margaret, and the two formidable suffragists travel aboard Barnum’s train from New York to Memphis to rescue the baby from certain death at the fiery cross.

A savage yet farcical tale, American Follies explores the roots of the women’s rights movement, its relationship to the fight for racial justice, and its reverberations in the politics of today.

Norman Lock is the award-winning author of novels, short fiction, and poetry, as well as stage and radio plays. He lives in Aberdeen, New Jersey, where he is at work on the next books of The American Novels series.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


Lock’s raucous, fantastical seventh entry in his American Novel series (after Feast Day of the Cannibals) involves Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on a search for a baby kidnapped by the KKK. Pregnant stenographer Ellen Finch, 27, secures a job as stenographer for the famous suffragists in 1883, when they are at work on their third volume of History of Woman Suffrage. Ellen endures Elizabeth and Susan’s one-upmanship and name calling (“Primp!” “Prude!” “Poseur!” “Prig!” “Humbug!” “Stickleback!”) and meets other notable figures such as Jacob Riis, Herman Melville, and performers from P.T. Barnum’s circus. Four months after the birth of Ellen’s son, Martin, he is taken by a member of the KKK, who claims the father is a black man passing as white and plans to kill him. Ellen, Elizabeth, and Susan borrow Barnum’s train to rush south on a surreal journey, complete with Stanton and Anthony dressed up as Klan members and later in blackface, and getting help from a jailer’s wife and a former slave in their desperate attempts to rescue the child. Lock captures the tone and language of the 19th century (“I composed a telegram with the laudatory terseness preferred by God for His pronouncements”), though the bizarre happenings are disorienting. This imaginative exploration of late-19th-century America’s cultural tensions is an amusing burlesque. (July)

From the Publisher

Praise for American Follies

Joyce Carol Oates Prize Longlist
Foreword Reviews “Book of the Day” selection

“Provocative, funny and sobering.” —Washington Post

Ragtime in a fever dream. . . . When you mix 19th-century racists, feminists, misogynists, freaks, and a flim-flam man, the spectacle that results might bear resemblance to the contemporary United States.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“A thrilling, unnerving portrait of 19th-century America. . . . One part novel of ideas, one part madcap adventure.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Dark, carnivalesque. . . . American Follies features lavish period details and unsettling alternative world building, warping expectations and standing out for its rapier wit.” —Foreword Reviews

“Raucous, fantastical. . . . [An] imaginative exploration of late-19th-century America’s cultural tensions.” —Publishers Weekly

“Lock nimbly explores race, gender, and identity through a historical lens while displaying a joyous love of language.” —Booklist

“Superbly crafted. . . . Absorbing and memorable.” —Midwest Book Review

“Brings to life the two suffragists, Anthony and Stanton. . . . A thoroughly worthwhile read.” —Historical Novels Review

Select Praise for Norman Lock’s The American Novels Series

“[Norman Lock’s fiction] shimmers with glorious language, fluid rhythms, and complex insights.” —NPR

“[A] dazzling series. . . . Lock’s supple, elegantly plain-spoken prose captures the generosity of the American spirit in addition to its moral failures, and his passionate engagement with our literary heritage evinces pride in its unique character.” —Washington Post

“Lock writes some of the most deceptively beautiful sentences in contemporary fiction. Beneath their clarity are layers of cultural and literary references, profound questions about loyalty, race, the possibility of social progress, and the nature of truth . . . to create something entirely new—an American fable of ideas.” —Shelf Awareness

“The American Novels series, Norman Lock’s current multi-year, multi-volume project, is nothing short of his most ambitious endeavor yet . . . a fusion of all his preoccupations: fabulism, storytelling and the story of the telling, and the exploration of history, its discontents and malcontents.” —Big Other

“In each [American Novels series] volume the first-person narrator functions as a kind of refractive lens, bending and blending together a generation of texts and ideas within a single mind, and yielding a spectrum of impressions on the development of American culture and identity.” —Millions

“The American Novels series [is] a unique blend where historic figures are given new (fictional) lives yet their re-envisioned stories shed light on the formation of the American mind and the fabric of our society.” —Advocate

On The Boy in His Winter

“Brilliant. . . . The Boy in His Winter is a glorious meditation on justice, truth, loyalty, story, and the alchemical effects of love, a reminder of our capacity to be changed by the continuously evolving world ‘when it strikes fire against the mind’s flint,’ and by profoundly moving novels like this.” —NPR

“[Lock] is one of the most interesting writers out there. This time, he re-imagines Huck Finn’s journeys, transporting the iconic character deep into America’s past—and future.” —Reader’s Digest

“To call [The Boy in His Winter] a work of fiction is to tell only part of the story. This book is as much a treatise on memory and time and the nature of storytelling and our collective national conscience. . . . Much of it wildly funny and extremely intelligent.” —Star Tribune

“Lock plays profound tricks, with language—his is crystalline and underline-worthy—and with time, the perfect metaphor for which is the mighty Mississippi itself.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

On American Meteor

“Sheds brilliant light along the meteoric path of American westward expansion. . . . [A] pithy, compact beautifully conducted version of the American Dream, from its portrait of the young wounded soldier in the beginning to its powerful rendering of Crazy Horse’s prophecy for life on earth at the end.” —NPR

“[Walt Whitman] hovers over [American Meteor], just as Mark Twain’s spirit pervaded The Boy in His Winter. . . . Like all Mr. Lock’s books, this is an ambitious work, where ideas crowd together on the page like desperate men on a battlefield.” —Wall Street Journal

“[American Meteor] feels like a campfire story, an old-fashioned yarn full of rich historical detail about hard-earned lessons and learning to do right.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

American Meteor is, at its core, a spiritual treatise that forces its readers to examine their own role in history’s unceasing march forward [and] casts new and lyrical light on our nation’s violent past.” —Shelf Awareness for Readers (starred review)

On The Port-Wine Stain

“Lock’s novel engages not merely with [Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Dent Mütter] but with decadent fin de siècle art and modernist literature that raised philosophical and moral questions about the metaphysical relations among art, science and human consciousness. The reader is just as spellbound by Lock’s story as [his novel’s narrator] is by Poe’s. . . . Echoes of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Freud’s theory of the uncanny abound in this mesmerizingly twisted, richly layered homage to a pioneer of American Gothic fiction.” —New York Times Book Review

“As polished as its predecessors, The Boy in His Winter and American Meteor. . . . An enthralling and believable picture of the descent into madness, told in chillingly beautiful prose that Poe might envy.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“As lyrical and alluring as Poe’s own original work, The Port-Wine Stain captures the magic, mystery, and madness of the great American author while weaving an eerie and original tale in homage to him.” —Foreword Reviews

“This chilling and layered story of obsession succeeds both as a moody period piece and as an effective and memorable homage to the works of Edgar Allan Poe.” —Kirkus Reviews

On A Fugitive in Walden Woods

A Fugitive in Walden Woods manages that special magic of making Thoreau’s time in Walden Woods seem fresh and surprising and necessary right now. . . . This is a patient and perceptive novel, a pleasure to read even as it grapples with issues that affect the United States to this day.” —Victor LaValle, author of The Ballad of Black Tom and The Changeling

“Bold and enlightening. . . . An important novel that creates a vivid social context for the masterpieces of such writers as Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne and also offers valuable insights about our current conscious and unconscious racism.” —Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife and The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

“Bursts with intellectual energy, with moral urgency, and with human feeling. . . . Achieves the alchemy of good fiction through which philosophy takes on all the flaws and ennoblements of real, embodied life.” —Millions

“Demonstrates Lock’s uncanny ability to inhabit historical figures and meticulously capture the vernacular of the time like a transcendentalist ventriloquist. . . . Offer[s] profound insights that sharpen our understanding of American history.” —Booklist (starred review)

On The Wreckage of Eden

“Perceptive and contemplative. . . . Bring[s] the 1840–60s to life with shimmering prose.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Lock deftly tells a visceral story of belief and conflict, with abundant moments of tragedy and transcendence along the way.” —Kirkus Reviews

“The lively passages of Emily’s letters are so evocative of her poetry that it becomes easy to see why Robert finds her so captivating. The book also expands and deepens themes of moral hypocrisy around racism and slavery. . . . Lyrically written but unafraid of the ugliness of the time, Lock’s thought-provoking series continues to impress.” —Publishers Weekly

“[A] consistently excellent series. . . . Lock has an impressive ear for the musicality of language, and his characteristic lush prose brings vitality and poetic authenticity to the dialogue.” —Booklist

On Feast Day of the Cannibals

“Lock does not merely imitate 19th-century prose; he makes it his own, with verbal flourishes worthy of Melville.” —Gay & Lesbian Review

“This spectacular work will delight and awe readers with Lock’s magisterial wordsmithing.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Engrossing and elegant, Feast Day of the Cannibals captures America’s kaleidoscopic spirit during a tumultuous, rapacious era.” —Foreword Reviews

“Transfixing. . . . This historically authentic novel raises potent questions about sexuality during an unsettling era in American history past and is another impressive entry in Lock’s dissection of America’s past.” —Publishers Weekly

Library Journal

★ 07/01/2020

Lock specializes in a subgenre of historical fiction in which historical characters implausibly interact, concocting situations that bore deep into the accumulated meaning of U.S. history—think Ragtime in a fever dream. In his latest novel, seventh in his "American Novels" series, a young woman who once served as Henry James's typist goes to work for Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and becomes friendly with the troupe of freaks in P.T. Barnum's circus. At least two actual fever dreams ensue before the plot goes entirely surreal. It's here, ironically, that the novel's theme coalesces, as the group falls into the clutches of the KKK. It seems that when you mix 19th-century racists, feminists, misogynists, freaks, and a flim-flam man, the spectacle that results might bear resemblance to the contemporary United States. VERDICT Besides playing with historical figures and themes, Lock's novels stretch the limits of literary conventions. Those unfamiliar with the series may expect more reality with their history, but once you accept that the novel is a wild ride, hang on for the fun. Highly recommended, especially for readers of the series.—Reba Leiding, emerita, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA

Kirkus Reviews

Lock’s novel blends history and delirium in a thrilling, unnerving portrait of 19th-century America.

The books in Lock’s American Novels cycle—of which this is the seventh—have ranged from the wryly philosophical (A Fugitive in Walden Woods, 2017) to the metafictional (The Boy in His Winter, 2014). This book, which shares a few characters with Feast Day of the Cannibals (2019), both stands on its own and carves out a distinctive space—one part novel of ideas, one part madcap adventure. In an author’s note at the end, Lock calls this novel’s subject “America for the disenfranchised and powerless.” And so the story follows one Ellen Finch, who goes to work for Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1883. Ellen is pregnant when this new position begins, and halfway through the novel, she gives birth—at which point her newborn son vanishes. With the aid of P.T. Barnum, Ellen and her allies determine that the Ku Klux Klan is the responsible party, at which point the novel takes on a more stylized tone—one which echoes the occasional forays into fever-dream imagery in the book’s first half. While Lock’s focus is largely on 19th-century politics, there are a few moments that recall the current political scene—including one of a group of Klansmen shouting, “Build a wall! Build a wall to keep them out!” Lock juxtaposes critiques of racism and sexism with snappy dialogue: "In Mr. Barnum’s opinion, twelve clowns should be sufficient to fluster a Grand Cyclops and turn a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan...upside down” is perhaps the most ornate example.

Lock continues to experiment and push against narrative conventions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781942658481
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press
Publication date: 07/07/2020
Series: American Novels Series
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,229,634
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x (d)

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