Feast Day of the Cannibals (The American Novels)
This is the sixth in the author’s American Novels Series which, according to the author, “examines the formation of the American mind and temperament.”
The novel is set in New York City in 1882 and is narrated by Shelby Ross, a bankrupt merchant now making a living as a customs agent working under the supervision of Herman Melville. The bridge that became known as the Brooklyn Bridge is under construction by Washington Roebling, an invalid who supervises the work from his apartment overlooking the bridge. Ross and Roebling are old schoolmates, and the entire novel is told in the form of “conversations” between the men, although Roebling never speaks and, in fact, is never seen. His presence in the novel is merely implied.
Ross talks about his relationship with Melville—at that point a depressed and forgotten author—as well as his friendship with another customs agent that results in tragedy for both men.
The dialogue is overblown and historical allusions to the Draft Riots, the Jay Gould and the Robber Barons, Walt Whitman, the Boston Tea Party, Chester Arthur, and many other incidents and people from America’s past drop like rain throughout Ross’s long soliloquies, but there seems to be no purpose to them. They come across as historical “name-dropping” for the sake of being historical.
There is a story hidden in all this for the patient reader willing to dig beneath the verbiage, but one wishes it could have been told in a more accessible manner.