“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 with 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 of the characters are in place, the journey through the novel is fascinating. Lock does more than include all of 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, readers feel like they 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 is 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.
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Check out other work by Marie A Bailey: