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Feast Day of the Cannibals (The American…

Feast Day of the Cannibals (The American Novels)

by Norman Lock

Series: American Novels (6)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1911851,349 (3.61)1
"[Norman Lock's fiction] shimmers with glorious language, fluid rhythms, and complex insights." --NPR In the sixth stand-alone book in The American Novels series, Shelby Ross, a merchant ruined by the depression of 1873-79, is hired as a New York City Custom House appraiser under inspector Herman Melville, the embittered, forgotten author of Moby-Dick. On the docks, Ross befriends a genial young man and makes an enemy of a despicable one, who attempts to destroy them by insinuating that Ross and the young man share an unnatural affection. Ross narrates his story to his childhood friend Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the soon-to-be-completed Brooklyn Bridge. As he is harried toward a fate reminiscent of Ahab's, he encounters Ulysses S. Grant, dying in a brownstone on the Upper East Side; Samuel Clemens, who will publish Grant's Memoirs; and Thomas Edison, at the dawn of the electrification of the city. Feast Day of the Cannibals charts the harrowing journey of a tormented heart during America's transformative age. Norman Lock is the award-winning author of novels, short fiction, and poetry, as well as stage, radio, and screenplays. He lives in Aberdeen, New Jersey, where he is at work on the next books of The American Novels series.… (more)



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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
“Were I to publish the story of my life, literary critics would condemn me as an untrustworthy witness to events and a most unattractive character to boot.”

So says Shelby Ross, the fictional narrator in Norman Lock’s Feast Day of the Cannibals to Washington Roebling, the geniune chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Ross tells his story in a series of visits all taking place in Roebling’s second-story room on Brooklyn Heights, starting on April 22, 1882, and ending on May 17, 1884.

Ross’s story is a sad one and not just because Ross is a somewhat “unattractive character.” Nor is he an “untrustworthy witness,” although he does like to put a gloss on things. Ross is a young man who managed to survive the Panic of 1873 with his life but not his money. To make ends meet, he secures a position as a customhouse appraiser serving under Herman Melville although, at the time, he knows nothing of Melville’s writing. A young coworker named Martin soon enlightens him, but the illumination is secondary to Ross’s uneasy friendship with Martin, which is the core of the story.

Martin is young and naive, interested in literature and given to dreamy thoughts. Ross is both attracted to and repelled by Martin, his inner conflict seeming to be a kind of awakening. Enter another coworker, Gibbs, a thoroughly disgusting and reprehensible character with a sharp eye. He wreaks havoc with Ross, forcing him to engage in debauchery, daring the man to admit his attraction to his own sex, which, of course, Ross denies. His denial costs him greatly but none more so than Martin.

While Ross’s own personal story is fairly predictable once all the characters are in place, the journey through the novel is fascinating. Lock does more than include all the right details to make the New York City of the early 1880s come alive. The novel is practically a “who’s who” compendium. Besides being an acquaintance of Washington Roebling, Ross is also on friendly terms with Ulysses S. Grant, from whom he asks a favor. In Grant’s company, he meets Mark Twain and takes an instant dislike to the man. He has dinner with Melville, meets his stoic wife, and then gets drunk along with Melville.

Lock takes us to and through the more seedy parts of the city, including brothels and saloons, as well as to the docks and boarding houses. Very quickly after starting Feast Day of the Cannibals, you feel like you are there, in the city with Ross, either comfortably situated in Roebling’s room where there’s a splendid view of the nearly finished Brooklyn Bridge or alongside Melville, choking on foul air in the bowels of a ship.

The novel is written in first person, always from Ross’s point of view, and the young man does love to talk. He was often insightful, another important aspect of the historical novel. The reader wants not just details in terms of clothing and living conditions, but also a sense of the morality of the age.

“My father bought a choice pew in the old Cedar Street Presbyterian Church as he would have a seat on the stock exchange. The doctrines of predestination and election confirmed his self-interest. He could do nothing, he said, on behalf of the unfortunates, because God had forecast his every move, as if life were a horoscope and we were obedient to planetary aspects and conjunctions.”

The novel’s structure was a bit confusing at first and, for this, I was glad to have a print copy of the book and not an audio. Lock includes the location and date with each shift in Ross’s narration. It’s a minor point to note that it took some flipping back and forth before I understood the system. Once I did understand it, though, the novel flowed.

If you enjoy historical novels, I highly recommend Feast Day of the Cannibals. ( )
  BaileyBrown | Jan 4, 2020 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Author Norman Lock is writer of a series of historical novels. In Feast Day of the Cannibals, he uses the characters of Herman Melville, Samuel Clemens and others to examine them in light of what they contribute to our legacy of moral and ethical values in today's world. The narrator is a man of no great repute who delivers what is essentially a soliloqy to the architect of a great bridge and who is an invalid and captive listener. The writing is in somewhat stilted English and yet imminently readable. A very interesting work from a capable writer, this one is worth reading. ( )
  mldavis2 | Nov 8, 2019 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
It is tough for me to know how to review this book. I read the first 30 pages and put it down and didn't pick it back up for two weeks. I did this in part because the writing style had put me off. It is written as a man telling a story to a friend. Though in this case, the friend never speaks but the narrator sometimes "answers" questions that must have been posed. So based on that initial reading session I wouldn't recommend this book. But since I was obliged to review this as part of the early reviews program I came back to it. And in doing so, I find I'm glad I did. The story become engaging and once you get used to the flow of the narrative it was easy to allow it to pull you with it. While there were parts that I found hard to imagine (could you really just go visit an ex-President who didn't know you from Adam?) it was easy enough to get past these because they are character and flavor building not merely plot points. Overall, I didn't love the book but I will try some of the others by Norman Lock. ( )
  Avogt221 | Jul 24, 2019 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
"If we weren't shut up in our own petty selves, there would be no need for other people's stories."

Some novels exist on their own, their authors fading away against their stories. And some are so tied to their authors that the two become part of a shared tale, to be read and discussed down the years. Moby Dick is one of the latter, read both metaphorically and literally as biographical of Herman Melville, who had the adventurous life, full of ruin, adventures, and disappointments that seem high drama.

is not a novel of Herman Melville, he is just a significant supporting character. The unreliable narrator of the story is Shelby Ross, a man who lost his family mercantile fortune and has now been reduced to working as a Customs clerk in 1882 New York City. Melville is his direct superior, a failure of a novelist and Ross's guide to the disappointment of the Gilded Age. Here he meets a cast of characters including two customs workers who become inexplicably intertwined in his life. Ross narrates his sorry story to Washington Roebling, the real-life engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge who directed its construction with his wife from his bedroom after being disabled in an accident deep under the Hudson. Though Roebling never gives his opinion on the tale, his bridge is a dominating symbol throughout.

Norman Lock has written a series of similar books, using the situations of important American authors "to discover the causes and beginnings of certain maleficent qualities in the American character. Since the writing is intended to be critical of contemporary life... it portrays the darkness at the heart of the nation's past," as he states in the afterword. This novel, an accomplished pastiche of the sort of brooding, allegorical 19th-century prose Melville mastered, shines an uneven light on the predatory face of capitalism and fleshy hunger. Some plot points pounce on the reader, with characters taking convenient or inexplicable actions. Though, in light of the source material and the unreliable narrator, this can be seen as part of the story, rather than against it.

Cannibalism is both a metaphor for human greed and literal violation of natural law to the characters. What I did not realize when I began was its tie to homoeroticism in the Victorian mind. The "other love", unspeakable in Melville's time, is none the less a pervasive subtext of his work. Here, it is very close to text. I did not understand the connection until reading this linked article by scholar Caleb Crain, 'Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville's Novels'. I encourage any interested readers to explore the concept themselves. In , I believe Lock wanted to explore what Melville could not on land, exposing intolerance and shame that may have forced him to couch his feelings in allegories of adventure.

Then again, maybe even that is reading too much into it. Perhaps it is creating a Melville out of his stories, rather than finding the author that built them. That's a type of cannibalism too.

"There are cannibals abroad on the island of Manhattan, who never get closer to the South Seas than whale oil and ambergris. They lie in ambush, waiting for us to make our inevitable mistakes."
1 vote Magus_Manders | Jul 16, 2019 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this book through the LibraryThing Give away.
I had a hard time connecting with this book and eventually gave up about 1/3 of the way into it. Boring monologue ( )
  kaylynvh | Jul 14, 2019 |
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