The Amalgamation Polka, By Stephen Wright, Knopf, 323 pp., $24.95
You know that ''The Amalgamation Polka" is not going to be a predictable Civil War novel when the first line is ''The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud." You quickly learn that these are not real ladies, and that little in this story will be as it initially appears.
Basically, it's a story of Liberty Fish, the offspring of a pre-Civil War mixed marriage. His mother, Roxana, is a former plantation belle who fled her cruel, slave-owning family to marry Thatcher Fish, a Yankee and abolitionist. They settle in New York State, where they provide a stop on the underground railroad.
When Liberty reaches young manhood, he enlists in the Union Army to fight the Confederacy, and secretly carries a map that shows the way to his mother's South Carolina childhood home. He wants to meet his maternal relatives, the ones who caused his mother so much emotional pain.
But ''The Amalgamation Polka," Stephen Wright's fourth novel, is so much more than one story. This is a grand and bizarre epic of the Civil War era. You travel through the lives of Liberty and Roxana, traversing the cities, canals, rivers, and fields of the North and South. The narrative always moves energetically onward but never in a straight line. Wright seems to understand, as did Mark Twain, that a good story can become great with some essential smaller journeys and a cast of memorable minor characters.
Among these are a 146-year-old former pirate in an exotic below-ground home who has declared himself the ''captain of the forest" and a Georgia farmer who has seceded from the Confederacy and reanointed his farm as Union land. In strange times, more than a few people may create their own reality. That these men do not relate exactly to the main plot is partly the point: They're integral parts of an upside-down world.
The novel also seeks to answer the question: How do you portray a world that was built on powerful contradictions and is now changing very fast? Wright constructs a tumultuous pre-Civil War United States. This is a world in which humans can own other humans. It is a land in which vast areas of most states are open, lawless, and isolated, and whose congested cities can hide as many dangers as the undeveloped territories. It is a culture whose health maxims include ''Don't ever eat anything red" and ''Dirt is the Devil's dandruff."
Most characters are vividly drawn, though there are some surprising stereotypes in such an original novel. The men in Roxana's family, who are central to the plot, are unfailingly boorish, and her mother gets some inevitably vague ailments whenever daily life presses in too much.
Yet throughout, the writing is beautiful. When Liberty is born, he is ''a wailing, wriggling, shimmery thing of mottled red and blue that Roxana recognized instantly as a glistening piece of her own heart." When Roxana says goodbye to Liberty on his departure for the Union Army, she says, ''Don't play the hero for anyone. There will be more than enough fools scrambling for that position and you will, no doubt, witness what becomes of them." Indeed, Liberty endures more than one gruesome (and highly detailed, highly realistic) battle. To survive, he understands, ''the one thing he must not do is think."
''The Amalgamation Polka" works brilliantly because Wright appears to have created this story not as a 21st-century author commenting on 19th-century values, but as someone living through, and struggling against, this moment in history. The view from deep inside is not always easy to follow but, page by page, bestows profound rewards.